BANBRIDGE followed up their two-point win over Belfast Harlequins with a fifth Ulster League success, despatching Malone deservedly on a three-two try count.
The importance of a strong scrum was graphically and painfully illustrated on a much bigger stage than Rifle Park later last Saturday afternoon. But by then the Belfast visitors had already had the point underlined to them as the Bann pack steamrollered their way to victory.
If Stephen Irvine was the main beneficiary of Bann’s forward domination with a personal tally of three tries, then the No 8 would be the first to accept that his feat owed everything to the combined efforts of his pack.
Malone looked much the livelier in the early exchanges and a second minute penalty from Josh Pentland and unconverted try from full-back Taylor Acheson, as he took advantage of some slack defending, gave Malone an eight point lead with 13 minutes played.
But the home side steadily worked their way back into the game and as the pack began to gain control up front it was the visitors’ turn to defend their lines. With 30 minutes played the Malone defence cracked as Irvine crossed from close range after his team had gone through the phases.
And three minutes before the interval, Bann turned the screw at scrum time, allowing Irvine to pick up and dive in for the second unconverted try and a 10-8 half-time lead.
The first ten minutes of the second half were played out in Malone territory and after another series of scrums close to the line the Bann eight again drove the opposition back, with Irvine again finishing off for his hat-trick.
Two minutes later Malone won a penalty on Bann’s ten metre line. Replacement John Creighton re-acted quickly, tapping and sprinting clear of the defence for a try under the posts which Pentland bettered to tie the scores.
The Malone kicker was short with two long-range penalty attempts but in between Neville Farr slotted over from closer range what proved to be the winning kick.
Coach Daniel Soper was pleased to get the two Ulster League wins under his belt without any injuries of consequence ahead of Saturday’s crucial All-Ireland League encounter with Barnhall. “The forwards were tremendous again today,” he said after the game. “But Malone were short one or two regulars in their pack and we can expect a much more severe test from Barnhall.
“It’s make or break for them because if we beat them on Saturday they’ll be left fighting for third place and a play-off game. A win for us might clinch promotion depending on the Highfield result.
“So that makes them very dangerous opponents and they showed against Cashel that they are right up there with the best in the Division. But I’m pleased with how we’re performing – we’ve a strong squad to select from and confidence is high so we really couldn’t be in a better position.”
This is Bann’s fourteenth season of All-Ireland rugby. They came within one win of promotion in their first season, only to be narrowly defeated at Midleton. Then last season a late drop goal denied them in the play-off at Old Crescent. This Saturday may just see them clinch that place in next season’s Division 2A but they’re going to have to be at their best against a Barnhall side that has shown steady improvement as the season has progressed.
Kick-off at Rifle Park on Saturday is at 2.30pm