On Saturday, Ballymena hosted City of Armagh RFC, who last season secured promotion to the top flight of Irish club rugby. Coming off the back of a disappointing loss to Malone last Saturday, Andy Hughes’ men were bolstered by the return of Connor Smyth back at the club after a spell at Rainey Old Boys and Pierce Crowe, returning from Injury.
There were debuts in a black jersey for new signings Cillian Butler and Mark Lamont, both looking to make an early impression. With both teams missing some key players, Eaton Park was set up for a close game.
The crowd had already been entertained by Ulster Under 18 girls, featuring Ballymena’s Orlaith Breen and Jessica Wilkinson. Following this, Ballymena Bear’s unveiled their new purpose built cabin, in association with the Wooden Spoon Charity. A team featuring Ballymena’s current and former Ulster and Ireland players played and entertaining game of Tag rugby as part of the celebrations.
Veteran fullback Rodger McBurney opened the scoring with a trademark run through the Armagh defence in the early stages of the game, giving Ballymena an early 7-0 lead, much to the delight of the large following. Armagh responded with a try of their own when, after several phases, the Armagh outhalf executed a crossfield kick to the corner with the home side exposed on the flanks.
With both teams trying to play expansive rugby in the favourable conditions, Ballymena looked to extend their lead before conceding a penalty with the try line in sight. The period of sustained pressure and an Armagh infringement, allowed Ballymena’s number 10 Sam Millar to slot home a penalty from 25m out for a 10-5 lead.
With Armagh adding their second try of the day to level the scores at 10-10, the home side found another gear in the lead up to the interval. Some indiscipline from the visitors, allowed the Ballymena pack to apply enough pressure to gain a territorial advantage. Connor Smyth, on his return to a black jersey, used all of his power to muscle past the Armagh defence from close range and with a Millar conversion, Ballymena led 17-10 at half time.
The third quarter showed more pressure from the home side, with Armagh succumbing to the onslaught with numerous penalties conceded. Pierce Crowe slotted a penalty to extend the gap to 10 points at 20-10. Armagh defence improved in the last quarter and despite a huge effort, the home side were unable to add to their points tally.
The visiting side added a late try to close the gap to 3 points, however Ballymena, led by newly installed captain Adam Lamont, were able to hold on for victory, in a win sure to boost confidence for the games ahead.
Butler, M. Lamont, McWhirter, P. Browne, Milford, Wallace, Fleck, Lamont, Robson,m S. Millar, Henry, Baillie, Ervine, D. Millar, McBurney
Reps: Taggart, Mark, Smith, Weerarathne, Crowe