City of Derry 14, Ballymena 50
There were positives for both sides as Ballymena eased to comfortable Ulster League victory over City of Derry thanks to an early second half blitz which took the game away from the home side at Judges Road on Saturday.
Both sides were almost unrecognisable from last season, the visitors missing numerous players currently on various Ulster duty while Derry have been forced into a complete reshuffle after losing Head Coach Terry McMaster and 10 senior players from last season while bringing no new players in. Indeed, the new First XV management team of Richard McCarter, Stephen Douglas, Joe Gallanagh and James Doherty was only unveiled at training on Thursday night so the home side were understandably trying to get a look at as many of the club’s young players as possible with established players like Simon Logue, Stephen Corr and David Funston still unavailable.
And for 40 minutes, that new management team will have been pleased with what they saw as young players like scrum-half Ben Barbour and winger Callum O’Hagan - before picking up an unfortunate knee injury - impressed on the debuts.
Derry made all the early running but despite their changed line-up, Ballymena had the look of a team further down the road of pre-season preparation and contained the home side well with out-half Glenn Baillie superbly pulling the strings and winger Martin Irwin always a threat.
It was the latter who opened the scoring five minutes in after superb Ballymena defence turned the ball over inside their own 22. The ball was switched quickly left with Calum Patterson breaking at pace. He was held up just inside the Derry half but Irwin was in support to run in for a unconverted try.
It was a try against the run of play but Derry responded well after Roger McBurney was penalised for infringing at the breakdown. The excellent Neil Burns kicked to touch and once Derry had secured the line-out, a superb drive from the pack forced Adam Bratton over in the corner with Burns adding a sublime touchline conversion for 7-5.
Jordan Foster was then denied a Ballymena try with a last ditch tackle but from the line-out, the visitors switched play left with Irwin arriving at pace to step inside the Derry defence and score under the posts with Baillie adding the extras.
That was 22 minutes in but two minutes later Derry led again and it owed everything to Burns’ once more. The out-half took a superb quick penalty and came within yards of the Ballymena posts before being held up. The support arrived though to recycle possession and move the ball left where big second row Richard Baird crashed over. Again Burns hit a superb conversion from the touchline and Derry led 14-12
That was as good as it got for the home side though who lost O’Hagan just before the break with a nasty looking knee injury.
The visitors secured an interval lead when Patterson danced inside the Derry defence 10 minutes before the break but at 14-19, there was little sign of the Ballymena dominance to follow.
That platform for the visitors’ comfortable second half came from two quick tries inside the opening minutes of the second half. First Ryan Mattison broke through an absent Derry defence with Baillie converting before second row David Whann got on the end of a Foster pass to run in for a 14-31 lead that basically ended the game as a contest.
Andy Graham’s side controlled the remainder of the half, if not the possession. The game became scrappy with Derry spilling possession much more often than they would have liked and Ballymena, whose off-loading and support play was top class, made them pay.
Further tries from scrum half John Creighton, Matthew Norris and a deserved effort from Baillie put the seal on a victory which will have pleased the Ballymena Head Coach though there was also enough to suggest Derry will still be dangerous if they can cut out the mistakes.
City of Derry: Ross Harkin, Cathal Cregan, Sam Duffy, Chris Cooper, Adam Bratton, Richard Baird, John Burns, Craig Huey, Ben Barbour, Neil Burns, Callum O’Hagan, Stuart Simpson, Ian Bratton, Conor Cummings, David Graham. (Replacements) James Hancott, Owen Furey, Phil Duffy, Jack Beattie , David Devine.
Ballymena: Chris Allen, Andrew Ferguson, Adrian Kirkpatrick, David Whann, Chris Smyth, Joe Thompson, Ryan Mattison, Mark Foster, John Creighton, Glenn Baillie, Johnnyn Rossborough, Roger McBurney, Calum Patterson, Jordan Foster, Martin Irwin. (Replacements) Josh Bill, James Taggart, Corey Miller, Nicky Stirling, Matthew Norris.