Soper keeping feet firmly on the ground

HAVING already turned over AIL Division 1B sides Belfast Harlequins and Ballynahinch, Armagh were entitled to approach Saturday’s Ulster League game in confident mood. After all, Bann had only one managed one victory and that against an Ards side nestling uncomfortably at the bottom of the table.

But from the outset it was the visitors who called the shots, eventually running in six tries for a winning margin that was only made respectable by two late touchdowns for the home side when the win was already in the bag.

Bann coach Daniel Soper was pleased with the performance although he tempered any undue optimism in the minds of the Rifle Park fans. “We were very good against Armagh – there was clear evidence of progress,” he said reflecting on the game. “But we’re still three weeks behind where I had planned to be going into the All-Ireland League.

“I would have liked two or three performances like that before our opening AIL game. Still there was evidence of a number of things we have been working on and it does allow us to travel to Greystones in a positive frame of mind.”

No 8 Jonny Graham, who got through an immense amount of work over the 80 minutes, opened the scoring. From a set piece in home territory Bann recycled through five phases giving Jonny Pollock and Mark Wilson the chance to make penetrating runs. The attack was carried on by Simon McKinstry before Stephen Irvine gave Graham the pass that allowed him to score in the corner.

Ashley Finlay’s break made inroads deep behind the Armagh lines. The ruck ball was turned over but when Armagh were forced to concede a lineout, Finlay found Pollock with a quick throw and Irvine burrowed over the line from close range.

Armagh hit back with a try before the break to keep them in contention at the interval, but two tries early in the second half put clear water between the sides. Andrew Morrison’s scything run from a midfield scrum took play inside the home “22”. Props Michael Cromie and Colin Bickerstaff carried ball further towards the line, allowing the third member of the front row gang, hooker Jonny Weir, to touch down at the posts and Pollock to convert.

Then Irvine grabbed his second after Graham’s pick-up and run from the base of a scrum had put the initial dent in the Armagh defensive line,

Armagh doubled their try tally after dispossessing Bann close to the visitors’ line, but two further tries sealed the win for the Rifle Park side. All the backs handled in a slick move finished off by Finlay, with Pollock slotting over the conversion.

Then Irvine showed his strength when he stripped the ball as Armagh mounted an attack inside Bann’s “22”. Ryan Patterson and Pollock supported to set Morrison off on a 75 metre run to the posts, with Pollock again converting.

Armagh’s two late tries would have given a degree of comfort to the home supporters but in all likelihood the Orchard County side’s confidence will have taken a knock in advance of their long journey this weekend to take on Cork side Clonakilty.

While not entirely happy with preparations to date, Soper said that at least Bann were now looking more like an AIL team. “We’re pretty close to knowing our starting line-up for Greystones,” he said. “The forwards have been solid and the backs have been playing well. We still have a number of players to come back from injury including Robin Thompson, Andrew Kirkwood and Matt Johnston. So that will give us a depth of cover in our backline that we haven’t enjoyed in recent seasons.

“Greystones away is a tough start, but that’s two wins under our belt so I’m more optimistic that we’ll put in a performance than I was a couple of weeks ago. If we can secure our first phase ball and recycle quickly then we have the threequarters to do damage.”