It was a somewhat depleted squad that made the journey to Carrick on Saturday 3rd December. A number of injuries and unavoidable withdrawals meant that a team of 14 took to the field to take on a Carrick side who sat third in the league and had made Ballymena work hard for a result in the same fixture earlier in the season.
From the kick-off the visitors went about working through their systems and despite being a man down dominated the early part of the game. An incredibly encouraging aspect of their development so far this season has been how they have embraced the structures put in place for them as a framework to play with and how they have committed to it both when things are going well and also at times when the game isn’t going their way. They have really developed an understanding of how to use their training patterns to their advantage and some of the rugby output on game day in recent weeks has been exceptional. Today was to be no different, and in fact the coaches post-match review was that it was as good a performance as they had seen this season, particularly given the circumstances the team found themselves in.
They showed real character and stood up to be counted in a game when that was exactly what had been asked of them.
The quality of some of the rugby on display from Ballymena was first class with only some minor errors halting their never-ending attacks. Carrick were using their physicality well too and the extra man meant that the men in black had to work through multiple phases to create their openings. And that’s exactly what they did, over and over, pressing the defence into submission.
The game wasn’t a completely one sided affair though and Carrick took the lead midway through the half with a midfield break resulting in a score near the posts which was duly converted.
The game went back and forth with Ballymena having the bulk of possession and attacking intent which, to be fair to the home side, they were able to repel with their greater numbers. Being stretched from side to side was clearly taking its toll though and they visibly tired as the half went on. The visitors were the next to score working their way upfield before muscling their way over theough McClung from close range for an unconverted try.
Patience was the name of the game for Ballymena and backing their gameplan. The pack were working hard carrying relentlessly with Armstrong, McClung, Carson and Wylie making metre after metre through contact and Houston and Heggarty directing play up front and making several breaks as the Carrick defence began to slip off some tackles.
Wilson and Carmichael were rampant both sides of the ball and were an endless thorn in the Carrick side.
Pressure again led to the next score from Ballymena with Carson finishing off following multiple phases of play involving all 14 of the team. The try was converted by Robinson and the visitors went into half time with their noses in front 12-7.
The team talk involved trusting the plan, and each other, and tightening up the breakdown area in the knowledge that space and opportunities will come.
The second half saw the boys in black take control as Thom and Robinson controlled play from half back and Mitchell and Crabbe shut down everything Carrick had to offer while continually gaining momentum for the team in midfield.
In the wide channels Kelly and debutant Truckle were always looking for work in attack and solid in defence.
The penalty count was now the only thing holding Ballymena back as they fell foul of the referees whistle repeatedly around the contact zone. But they weren’t to be denied further reward for their efforts as, after another period of moving the ball all over the park, Wilson broke free from the Carrick ‘22 and outpaced the cover to score below the posts. Robinson coverted to take the score to 19-7.
With both sides starting to tire there were openings for both sides going into the final quarter and it was Carrick who struck next with a breakaway following a missed tackle in the backine. At 19-14 the game didn’t really reflect Ballymena’s dominance in both possession and intent so it was a welcome addition to their points tally when Mitchell charged over from 15 metres out to complete a period of play that saw them go through phase after phase attacking at close quarters and then moving the ball into the wider spaces they’d created in a varied attack Carrick had no answer to. Robinson converted from wide out to seal the game at 26-14.
The final whistle brought to a close a really enjoyable encounter between two very competetive teams and gives Ballymena a boost going into the final game before the Christmas break.
As always there is plenty to work on midweek and there was a real energy building through the squad that they will hope to carry through for the rest of the season.