YOU wait months for a hat-trick, then two come along at once!
The results of the Ballymena ground staff’s efforts in the face of last week’s rain and harsh frosts were remarkable with Banbridge U-13s arriving off the long coach trip to inspect an excellent playing surface.
Though overcast, the elements were benign, with little wind and the temperature above five degrees for a change!
Bann suffered an early set back when Brandon Avery-Cunningham rolled his ankle during warm-up; a real disappointment for him after a super start to the season which saw him nailing down a starting second row position. His team-mates were shaken by his obvious pain and when Ballymena scored within minutes of kick-off it was evident that the team’s mindset wasn’t right.
Ballymena had big strong forwards who revelled in the early exchanges and too often Bann players didn’t make tackles.
It fell to Hayden Kerr, last year’s player of the season, to steady the ship; he collected a knock-on and beat the Ballymena cover on the outside to tip-toe down the line before racing under the posts for a try that somewhat steadied the Bann nerves. Tom Flanagan added the points for the conversion.
Ballymena pummelled the Bann players, rocking them off rucks, breaking tackles and dominating most phases of play. Incredibly Troy Pinion reversed the general trend with a breakaway from a Ballymena error and managed to score a converted try.
Ballymena responded by laying siege to the Bann line and after a number of phases managed to dot down for a try which some of the Bann players contested.
After another bruising, tackle-breaking onslaught, Ballymena again camped on the Bann line and had an apparently fine try harshly declared to be ‘held-up’ by the referee. As the half time whistle blew the Bann players were unsettled and disheartened despite being two points ahead.
Adam Buller started the second half brightly with a brilliant run dancing around tacklers to score a try in the corner that went unconverted. However Ballymena’s immediate riposte was to slash through Bann’s defensive line to score a converted try, tying the game.
Situations like this, away from home with momentum swinging toward the opposition, are the test of a team. Whereas on other occasions the Bann heads went down, something else happened on Saturday.
Captain Robert Mathers had a word with the boys. Eoin Rice became a tackling machine, slicing down much bigger players; Mathew Neill went from sliding off tackles to driving players back in ‘choke tackles’; Jack Dorman became a marauding No 8 shutting down space; Cormac Murray covered huge amounts of ground shutting down opposition options; and Jake Beattie and Troy Pinion repeatedly double-tackled the bigger opposition centres, erecting a virtual wall across midfield.
Missed tackles just stopped happening; Ballymena were operating on the back foot and their bigger players simply were not getting up from contact.
Bann’s first half scoring duo went on the rampage. The scoreboard ticked over as Pinion, then Kerr, then Pinion, then Kerr scored. A brace of hat-tricks between them! Flanagan knocked over another three conversions.
Bann players, looking each other, in the eye knowing that something special had happened-a spirit-rousing performance that even had Avery-Cunningham grinning as he was carried to the coach, ankle heavily strapped, for the long trip home.