Banbridge are in the top half of Division 2A of the All-Ireland League for the first time this season after a first-ever win over Old Crescent.
Their two previous outings against the Munster side, both in Limerick, had ended in defeat with the first of those in a play-off four years ago, prolonging Bann’s stay in the lowest tier of the AIL.
The home side eventually prevailed by a margin that denied the visitors even a losing bonus point but the try tally of two each fairly reflects the losers’ efforts, with the boot of Bann’s Lee Steenson making the difference in the final analysis.
With skipper Ian Porter having failed to recover from a knock picked up at Bruff, the patient Steenson, who had little game time since Porter’s previous return from injury, took over the kicking duties as well as the number nine shirt. And he proved a more than able deputy, putting in a solid performance at the base of the scrum as well as slotting over six from seven shots at goal.
Bann made an enterprising start with an angled run from centre Jonny Little carving out a decent opening in the first minute before a sparkling threequarter move gave winger Hugo Harbinson a chance to test the last-ditch qualities of the Bruff defence.
Eight minutes in, Bann made the breakthrough that had been threatening. Harbinson made the initial breach in the midfield defence just inside the Bruff 22 before finding Adam Ervine with a long pass. The full-back had support outside in the shape of John Porter but he backed himself to make the touchdown, crossing out wide for a try which Steenson did well to better.
That score seemed to energise the visitors and their response came within five minutes, with Conor O’Driscoll finishing off after his side had found it all too easy to breach the home defence from a drive off the base of a set scrum.
Bann exerted pressure from a 5-metre lineout, with Chris Allen and Dale Carson prominent in the thrust for the line, eventually winning a penalty for Steenson to convert midway through the half.
Following a brief fracas, Allen and Bruff out-half Gareth Quinn McDonough took a 10 minute break from the action.
During their absence, it was the visitors who looked more likely to add to their tally but the Bann defence held them out before Steenson kicked a simple penalty to take Bann eight points clear.
The Bruff maul was proving a potent weapon and from a lineout close to Bann’s line, the visitors’ pack proved unstoppable as they drove over for scrum-half Alan Bennie to claim the touchdown with McDonough adding the extras.
Bann’s response, two minutes later and just before the interval proved to be the crucial point in the match. A decoy run put blindside winger Porter in possession just inside the Bruff half. The visitors seemed to have enough defenders in place but Porter shimmied, side-stepped and accelerated past five of them before touching down at the posts with his trademark dive. Steenson converted and the eight point lead had been restored.
The kickers exchanged penalties around the hour mark. Bruff were fortunate not to pick up another yellow card after another blistering run from Porter had been brought to a shuddering halt near the try line by a high tackle. Centre Andrew Morrison thought he had registered his side’s third try when he successfully chased a grubber kick to touch down only to be penalised for off-side in front of the kicker.
Steenson’s fourth penalty left an 11 point gap between the sides. With less than two minutes remaining a Bruff player picked up an injury that required his removal by ambulance. With a chance of what could be an important bonus point still within the reach of the visitors, the time remaining was played out on the top pitch at Rifle Park after a break of nearly an hour but the scoreline remained unaltered.
Old Crescent’s disappointment at missing out on a bonus point will have been tempered by the news of their injured player’s discharge from hospital.
It’s now five wins on the trot for Bann, four of them in the AIL.They can travel to Ballymena on Saturday for their Ulster League game in confident mood. The gloom around Rifle Park following a poor start to the season has now well and truly lifted and with three games remaining in the national league, the Rifle Park side will looking for a top four finish to round off an exciting end to the campaign.