Ballymena welcomed Armagh to Eaton Park on Saturday 4th February, knowing that a win would secure the 2nd XV league for the second straight season. Gareth Fisher and Mikey Stevenson’s men had put in a number of excellent performances throughout the year and having called upon a number of players during the league campaign, Ballymena have built a squad capable of challenging for both league and cups.
Having lost the toss Ballymena played towards Broughshane with the wind at their backs, knowing they had to make the most of the conditions. Roared on by a large home support Ballymena’s pack soon got on top of their Armagh counterparts and after a scrum penalty and strong lineout maul attack Ballymena fed the backline and out half Sam Millar sent winger Darrell Montgomery through untouched for the opening score. 5-0
The Ballymena scrum again earned another penalty soon after, which was kicked into the corner. After an excellent throw to the tail of the lineout to set up another maul, hooker George Hargy scored his sides second try. An excellent conversation from Joe O’Rawe left Ballymena with a 12-0 lead.
A shell-shocked Armagh team were on the back foot almost immediately following an excellent carry from Shaw Fleck off the kick off. A further infringement allowed Ballymena to again kick to the corner. What followed was the try of the match where a pre planned move sent Montgomery through for his second try of the game. O’Rawe converted for a 19-0.
This sparked Armagh into life who made their first entry into Ballymena’s 22. They were met with excellent defence from Ballymena but the referee had adjudged Ballymena offside. Here Armagh kicked to the corner and scored a maul try themselves to bring the score to 19-7.
This Ballymena team has shown character in abundance this season and their response to conceding was excellent. They immediately put Armagh on the back foot and had a series of phases in the Armagh 22. At this point the away side were reduced to 14 men, as their centre was yellow carded for a high tackle on Eoin Ritson. To their credit, Armagh continued to defend to a man before conceding a penalty at the breakdown and Ballymena chose to scrum. The front row of David Forsythe, Ashton Logan and Hargy duly delivered as Ballymena drove over for to give number 8 Matty Dick the easiest of scores for a 24-7 lead as the half time whistle approached.
However there was still time for Armagh to hit back. After a poor clearance from Ballymena following the restart, the Armagh winger made a break into the Ballymena 22. After a number of phases, Armagh scored their 2nd try for a half time score of 24-12 to Ballymena.
Whilst delighted with the try bonus point before half time, coaches Fisher and Stevenson made it clear to players their work was not done. Armagh had profited from Ballymena’s mistakes and this needed to be rectified for the 2nd half as they turned to play into the wind.
Ballymena were able to fall back upon their extremely strong scrum to gain a number of penalties in the second half. Ballymena defended manfully led by second rows Paddy Hargy and Jonny Browne in the pack and Paddy James in the centre. Blindside flanker Peter Wallace was also prominent in both attack and defence, with his strong carries making vital yards for the Ballymena side. Armagh attempted to use the wind, to kick in behind the Ballymena side, but the back 3 dealt well with this. Kane McIlroy was dangerous in the counter attack and Armagh struggled to contain his pace.
As a result the 2nd half didn’t have the quality of rugby as the first half had. Both sides suffered a yellow card and this disrupted momentum. The bench of Jack Alexander and Andrew Wilson added energy to the Ballymena performance and saw the final score remain 24-12 and the league title was secured for a 2nd straight season.
This was nothing less than this Ballymena side deserved for their efforts since August in the league. They finish the leagues campaign vs Banbridge, before turning their attention to a Town’s Cup quarter final vs Ballyclare 1st XV.