Ballyclare topple league leaders.
As this exciting season draws to a close, Ballyclare headed to Omagh for the first of their three “cup finals”. Games don’t come much bigger than a top of the table clash with three games to go. Prior to kick off, Omagh sat top of Kukri Championship Division 1 with a five point lead over second place Ballyclare. Ballyclare had inflicted one of Omagh’s only two league defeats all season, with a 23-15 win at the Cloughan away back on 3rd September.
Ballyclare welcomed lock Robert Boyd back to the starting line-up on his return from injury. Paul Robinson started in the back row following his return to action from the bench last week. The personnel in the back line remained unchanged but Niall Lawther started at out half with Robert Smith reverting to full back. Friday’s persistent rain had put the match taking place in doubt but following an early morning pitch inspection, the green light was given. Come kick off, the overhead weather was dry, with very little wind. The pitch was in reasonable condition although patches of surface water left footing heavy in places.
Following 15 minutes of nip and tuck play, Ballyclare opened the scoring. Ballyclare’s pack, including two 18 year olds in the front row were dominating the scrums. Matthew Coulters accurate throwing at the line outs allowing Grant Bartley and Robert Boyd to win clean ball for Ballyclare to set up attacking plays. A superb penalty to touch by Robert Smith gave Ballyclare an attacking lineout deep inside the Omagh 22. The ball was won and Ballyclare went through a few phases off play, maintaining possession and edging towards the Omagh try line. Young prop, Dean Jones, found a gap in the stretched Omagh defence and powered over the line to score wide right. Robert Smith struck the conversion well to add the conversion. 0-7
Omagh responded almost immediately. From the restart Omagh pressed play in the Ballyclare half. The ball was flashed through their backs with centre Scott Barr exploiting a gap to pull 5 points back for the home side. The conversion was added to leave the scores tied after 18 min. 7-7
With a half hour on the clock, Omagh were on the attack in the Ballyclare half. Their talented winger Neil Brown received a pass midfield and arced his run around a bunched Ballyclare defence, handing off a tackle attempt to run in Omagh’s second try, wide right. The conversion, looked to be heading wide but pulled inside the right upright at the last second to put Omagh 14-7 up. Omagh were penalised at the restart and Robert Smith had a go at the posts from between the 22 and 10m lines but pushed it just wide. There was no further scores added when the half time whistle sounded leaving everything to play for in the second half.
With 15 minutes gone in the second half Ballyclare were in the ascendancy. Enjoying a period of possession inside the Omagh 22. Omagh were struggling to deal with Ballyclare scrum. With play 5m from the Omagh try line Ballyclare turned the screw. Omagh were penalised a couple of times at the scrum giving Ballyclare the opportunity to call for the scrum again and again. The breakthrough came when in front of the posts, the scrum wheeled slightly to allow number 8 Ryan Tweed to break and power over to score. Smith added the straight forward conversion to level the scores again at 14-14. Omagh struck a long range penalty soon after to regain the lead 17-14.
With 10 minutes of the game remaining a break out of defence by Niall Lawther brought play towards the Omagh 22. Interchanging passes with Robert Smith saw Ballyclare bearing down on the Omagh line again. Omagh managed to stop Lawther but the tackler played the ball on the ground and received a yellow card for his troubles. Smith put the ball into touch from the resulting penalty, to set up a lineout on the Omagh 5m line. Grant Bartley secured the ball at 2 in the line and the maul for the line was set. The maul twisted and turned, a pod broke of the back and Robert Boyd was driven over the line to score Ballyclare’s third try of the afternoon. Smith, reliable as ever, added the conversion to give Ballyclare the lead again as time was running out. 17-21
Omagh thought they had scored a match winning try with a couple of minutes on the clock but a last ditch hit by Ballyclare wing Stuart Cusick on the Omagh full back Beckett saw him put a foot in touch prior to touching down in the corner. The intensity of the game spilled over as a mass brawl ensued. When control was re-established, Ballyclare tried to keep the possession of the ball and see out the clock. From the 5m line-out the ball was rucked a time or two and when a scrum was awarded to Ballyclare the crowd thought it was game over. Omagh produced their best scrum of the afternoon turning the ball over to mount one final attack. Ballyclare defence held firm and when Omagh were penalised at a ruck the game resorted to boxing again. When things were calmed down for a second time, Robbie Reid kicked the ball to touch to end the game.
A superb game of rugby which ensures the race for the title goes on to the final two games. This was another excellent team performance by the Ballyclare squad, all 17 playing their part. The work rate of the forwards at the breakdown particularly noticeable. Captain Gary Weatherup led the team by example as usual and Tommy Holland helping to keep Ballyclare on the front foot with fast ball away from rucks and set pieces. Omagh, having secured a losing bonus point, now head the table by 2 points and with only two games remaining must still be counted as favourites for the title. Ballyclare face 3rd place Instonians next week at the Cloughan where another tough encounter between the league’s top teams is expected. All available supporters are required at the Cloughan next week to cheer the team on.
Ballyclare 1st XV 1-15; Dean Jones, Matthew Coulter, Al Boyd, Robert Boyd, Grant Bartley, Paul Robinson, Gary Weatherup, Ryan Tweed, Tommy Holland, Niall Lawther, Michael Kirk, Dave Clarke, Robbie Reid, Stuart Cusick, Robert Smith.
Replacements; Willie Logan & Craig Smith
Ballyclare 2nd XV were the only other side in action on Saturday, the 4th XV match a victim of the weather. Playing Bangor 2nd XV away the Cloughan second string produced a fine win. A penalty by Gareth Byers and a try by Matthew Robson gave Ballyclare an 8-0 lead at half time. A converted try by Bangor early in the second half pulled the hosts back to within a point Byres struck another penalty before Greer scored a try which Byers converted before Alex Ottey touched down to give the Cloughan men a 23-7 victory. The win sets the 2’s up well for next week’s Crawford Plate semi-final, away to Ballymena 3’s.
Next Week’s fixtures
1st XV v Instonians (L)
Ballymena 3’s v 2nd XV (Crawford Plate Semi)
Lisburn 3 v Ballyclare 3 (L)