TWO injury-time drop goals saw Banbridge U-17s edge home against Malone and complete an Ulster League and Cup double for the second successive year.
This was not a classic - finals rarely are - but it held the attention of the large body of supporters from both clubs throughout until, eight minutes into injury time and to the evident delight and relief of the Rifle Park fans, the referee blew the final whistle.
Malone had much the better of the first half exchanges, and with Bann regularly falling foul of the match official at the breakdown, the Belfast side had three penalty opportunities from varying ranges inside the Bann half. But they were all off target and the seven point lead they took into the interval came courtesy of an ill-directed pass as Bann attacked from just inside the opposition half.
Right winger Mark Widdowson pounced to snatch the ball and set off on a 60 metre run, stepping inside the covering defender to touch down under the posts, leaving Ben Rodgers to add the conversion.
Bann had a chance three minutes after the re-start to peg back three points but Macauley Little struck the kick wide. But as play continued in and around the Malone “22”, Bann moved the ball right and then left. Ben Cross took a pass and using the two runners outside as decoys, slipped through the gap that opened up and switched on the after-burners to make the line. Little struck a fine conversion to tie the scores.
Malone hit back, pummelling at the Bann line over a five minute period when it looked as if the strength of their burly pack would wear down the defence. But the Bann rearguard was resolute, with big hits going in right across the defensive line until eventually Malone knocked on and the pressure was relieved from the scrum.
Much of the action took place between the respective “22”s as the teams slugged it out to find a way through for the score that would win the game. The ball-carrying of Richard Graham, Stuart Walker and replacement flanker Adam Copes kept Malone on the back foot for periods but the Gibson Park side worked their way up-field to win a penalty on Bann’s “22”. There was palpable relief in the ranks of Bann’s supporters when the kick drifted wide of the target.
With the threat posed by Bann’s backline being well-marshalled by the Malone threequarters the game looked to be heading for a draw. Then with the Ravenhill clock showing a minute of stoppage time played, Bann recycled from a ruck on the Malone “22”. The ball came to Jason Gribbon and the full-back struck what could best be described as an economic drop-kick which just eased over the crossbar.
As the supporters anticipated the final whistle Bann seemed to be playing with fire as they built up another attack from inside their own half. But as they retained possession through a series of rucks the ball came to Little and he struck a magnificent drop goal from 30 metres out.
Play re-started with Malone needing a converted try but their despairing efforts in the two minutes remaining were to no avail, leaving them narrow losers to Bann for the third time this season, a disappointing return for a talented squad.
This result capped a superb season for the small squad which represented Bann throughout the year. That All-Ireland semi-final defeat by eventual winners Navan was put firmly behind them as they again showed great heart to come from behind and defeat their big rivals from the city.
Credit must go to team coaches Brian Cromie, Tim Honeyford and David Neill who had the team so well prepared and who engendered the battling spirit in the squad which ensured that the C E Bowman Cup came back to Rifle Park for a record seventh time.
The Bann team was: Jason Gribbon, Kenneth Wiltshire, Ben Cross, Jonny Adams, Adam Stirling, Macauley Little (Capt), Josh Coyle, Lee Geddis, Timothy Savage, Alan Thompson, Stuart Walker, Nathan Connery, Matthew Beck, Richard Graham, Neal Cochrane. Replacements: Adam Copes, Matthew Stewart, Jake Dennison, Ross Haughey, Josh Cromie, Wayne McCurry.