A DOMINANT second half performance from Ballymena saw them register their 13th First Trust Senior Cup success against a game Banbridge in Belfast last night.
Having been second best in the first half, the All Ireland League Division 1B side, still led 7-6 at the break and in a strange twist, started their dominance of the second just when they had lost outhalf Martin Irwin to the sin-bin.
It was a frantic opening quarter. Ballymena kicked off, the first scrum saw a free kick awarded against Banbridge and the Braidmen then put together some attacking phases but were repelled.
However, having weathered the early storm, Banbridge began to get the upper hand. A clearance attempt straight out from Ballymena gave the Division 2B side a lineout in a good attacking position and a solid drive made inroads.
Bann outhalf, Robin Thompson, had the chance to open the scoring with an offside penalty award, but he completely fluffed the effort.
The Bann pack proved effective both at set piece and loose and when they drove the Ballymena eight back and when the scrum went down, Thompson stepped up to confidently drill home the penalty from the same spot as earlier for a 15 minute 3-0 lead.
Then, from nothing, and against the run of play, a high kick from Ballymena scrumhalf, Davy O’Hara, was not dealt with by Steven Cowan.
Ballymena winger, Caoloan Fitzpatrick scooped the loose ball up superbly and laid the perfect pass for centre, Ali Fraser to race in for the opening try on 21 minutes.
O’Hara slotted over what was a regulation conversion and it was 7-3.
It had come after a period of total Bann domination and the underdogs were right back in Ballymena’s faces, pressing through a lineout in the corner.
They put the drive on and used the pick and go twice, before a penalty for holding gave the Division One side relief.
Ballymena blindside, Paul Prichard, was making huge hits in the loose and when he went down injured – a minute after Conor Carey had replaced Chris Cundell in the front row on 34 minutes – there was an anxious rumble from the support.
Pritchard stayed on and if the Ballymena switch in the front row was to counter the Bann dominance, the answer came at the next scrum as the Division 2B side drove the Braidmen back again, forcing the penalty, but Thompson was unable to convert, pushing the penalty effort wide on 39 minutes.
Two minutes into injury time he had a long range chance and he drilled it home to make it 7-6 at the break.
Ballymena started the second half strongly and made some inroads to the Banbridge half, but they infringed at a ruck and, having been warned Ballymena earlier, there was a yellow card for outhalf, Martin Irwin on 47 minutes.
Ballymena stayed in the ascendancy. The Division One side continued to dominate and a good break by fullback, Ricky Andrew took place up to the ‘22’, he fed replacement John Burns and he drove on.
From the ruck a ball flashed out saw captain Pritchard come on a lovely line and go through the midfield over for the try, which O’Hara converted for a 14-6 lead.
Banbridge defended well under pressure, but they had to play the ball out of their own ‘22’ and with Ballymena back to full strength again, they found themselves in trouble more than often.
The large Bann support finally got something to warm them against the cold winter air when a hack ahead brought their side into Ballymena territory, but they never really got control of the ball and Ballymena were soon attacking the Bann ‘22’ again and forcing a penalty for hands in the ruck.
O’Hara landed the points and it was practically game over.With Ross Hackney sin-binned, Bann’s effective pack capitalised and Ryan Patterson got over for the try, Thompson failing with the conversion to leave the scoreboard 17-11.
It was left for Ballymena to change out of their ‘away’ kit to their regular black and Pritchard received the Cup from Joey Devlin, representing First Trust.
BALLYMENA: Ricky Andrew; Caoloan Fitzpatrick, Ali Fraser, Richard Aingworth, John Semple; Martin Irwin, Davy O’Hara; James Carson, Andy Warwick, Chris Cundell, Darrell O’Kane, Josh Christie, Andrew Kerr, Paul Pritchard (capt), Ross Hackney.
Replacements (all used): Chris Carey, John Burns, Joel Andrew, Stephen Mulholland, Andy Smyth
Tries: Fraser, Pritchard.
Cons: O’Hara (2)
Sin-bin: Irwin (47-57), Hackney (79)
BANBRIDGE: Stephen Cowan; Jonny Pollock, Andrew Morrison, Jonny Little, Andrew Kirkwood; Robin Thompson, Adam Ervine; Michael Cromie, David Weir, Brian Hanna, Colin Bickerstaff, Simon McKinstry (capt), Dale Carson, Mark Wilson, Stephen Irvine.
Replacements (rolling): Jonny Weir, Colin Bickerstaff, Dale Carson, Neville Farr, Geoff Thompson.
*Do not miss tomorrow’s follow-up