BALLYNAHINCH 14 BANBRIDGE 29
Billed by the host club as the ‘biggest local derby in Ireland this week’, this battle between the two leading clubs in Ulster certainly lived up to expectations in front of what was Ballynahinch’s biggest gate for several seasons.
In the end the visitors from Banbridge prevailed and, given the 4-1 try count in their favour, there could be no disputing their right to the points, nor indeed was there from the gracious losers.
The first quarter of the game saw ‘Hinch build up a nine point lead as the Rifle Park side conceded four penalties with ‘Hinch kicker Richard Reaney successful off the tee with three of those shots at the posts. Worse was to follow in the 33rd minute when ‘the home side gathered a knock on and the counter-attack saw Reaney finish off in the left hand corner. The conversion missed the target but ‘Hinch looked to be on their way to avenging the October defeat they suffered in Banbridge.
But as Bann began to work their way into the game prop Michael Cromie bulldozed his way through the first-line ‘Hinch defence to set up a ruck deep in home territory. Andrew Morrison’s thrust took two defenders out and his off-load put new centre partner James Hume in at the posts, with Adam Doherty’s conversion halving the points differential at the interval.
A moment of rashness near the end of the first half had deprived Bann of the services of lock Chris Allen for 10 minutes. But even in his absence Bann made the early running after the break and after Conor Field had picked up a loose pass on the home “22”, several phases later Michael Cromie found Adam Ervine with a floated pass and the skipper scorched over in the corner to narrow the gap to two points..
Bann were now dominant in the loose, with Stephen Irvine’s strong carries playing a major role in keeping them on the front foot. Adam Doherty’s eye for a gap put Bann in a strong attacking position and, when the ball was moved left, Ervine was left in space to cross the line, running behind to dot down under the posts with Doherty’s conversion taking his side 14-19 in front with 53 minutes played.
Reaney had a golden chance to narrow the gap but an uncharacteristic failure off the tee and Doherty’s subsequent success at the other end with a similar opportunity gave Bann a two score lead on the hour.
‘Hinch then enjoyed a prolonged period of possession but every attempt to get into the visitors’ “22” off countless phases foundered on an uncompromising, well-organised Bann defence.
The lineouts of both sides had hiccoughed all afternoon, but when a penalty award gave Bann a lineout on the ‘Hinch “22” with four minutes left on the clock, Caleb Montgomery caught the ball cleanly at the tail. The maul was driven forward and flanker Nick Hayes peeled off to gallop the 15 metres to the posts for the bonus point try, with Doherty adding the extras.
The delight of the Bann players and supporters at the win over the league leaders and local rivals was obvious and coach Daniel Soper made no attempt to hide his feelings after the game. “We’ve won two very tight games with ‘Hinch this year and we’re very proud of that,” he said with a broad smile. “This season is the first we’ve beaten ‘Hinch in the All-Ireland League and we’ve done it twice now. And it’s the first time we’ve beaten them on their own patch in any competition since we went senior 20 years ago.”
“The players put in a lot of hard work in preparation for this game but in the first 15 minutes I thought that they were just over-excited,” he said.
“In the last couple of games our discipline has been excellent. Last week we gave away five penalties in the whole game. Today we conceded four in 15 minutes. But today we were so determined to put a marker down – trying to make a bit of a statement about how much we’ve improved and we just put ourselves under pressure.
“Once we got a bit of clarity of thought we looked quite comfortable. We had to be good defensively and we were. We’ve put a real focus on our defence this season and the guys had a huge amount of confidence and trust in each other.
“Once we got through that first 20 minutes we looked in control and the players knew there was no need to panic.”
Soper highlighted the performances of a couple of the younger players, including scrum-half Jason Gribbon. “Jason is away at University and hasn’t done a lot of training with us or played many games. He was dropped into the hot seat today in such a big game and I thought he did exceptionally well.”
Centre James Hume, who had signed for Bann last summer after leaving RBAI, was playing his first game since last April because of injury. “James is a real talent who hopefully is going to go on to bigger and better things. But as long as he’s with us I hope he can go on performing the way he did today. He and Mo (Andrew Morrison) complemented each other very nicely in the centre and they worked well for James’s score.
“And Jonny Little is playing out of position at out-half but he did very well also.”
The Bann coach readily acknowledged the pre-eminence over recent seasons of a club he used to play for and coach. “Hinch have been the leading team in Ulster for the last number of years. They’re the yardstick that you measure yourselves against. This was a fixture we’d identified as one to prove that we were good enough to play in this league and we’ve done that now in both games.
“The players, coaching staff and supporters are all delighted that all the hard work and the plans that we’ve put in place have paid off.”
Bann remain in third place in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League, but thanks to Saturday’s result and Limerick Bohs’ defeat of Shannon on Friday night, the Rifle Park side are now level on points with Shannon and just one point behind Ballynahinch.
So with just four games left, it’s all building nicely for an exciting finish as the three teams battle it out for the top spot which earns automatic promotion to the top tier of club rugby in Ireland.
Bann team v Ballynahinch:- Adam Doherty, Adam Ervine (Capt), Andrew Morrison, James Hume, Conor Field, Jonny Little, Jason Gribbon, Eric O’Sullivan, Peter Cromie, Michael Cromie , Chris Allen, Mike Bentley, Caleb Montgomery, Nic Hayes, Stephen Irvine. Replacements:- Jonny Weir, Stuart Cromie, Dale Carson, Robin Sinton, Ben Carson.