The dream is over for Banbridge – for another year at least, writes David Dodds.
Their first defeat on their home turf this season saw them miss out on promotion to the top tier of club rugby in Ireland.
The students of UCC came to Rifle Park buoyed by their victory over St Mary’s in the semi-final of the play-offs and they overcame the challenge of a Banbridge side which was never able to replicate the standard of flowing rugby which had been the hallmark of their season.
Bann coach Daniel Soper acknowledged that overall UCC probably deserved the win.
“It’s very disappointing to lose at this stage after all the effort that has been put into the season. But they dominated position and possession out there today,” he said in the aftermath.
“We can think about all the what ifs – what if we’d done this and what if that decision had gone the other way. But what we have to do is reflect on the season and identify those games and all those moments that we didn’t quite nail it.”
In a play-off final dominated by defences Bann and UCC produced only three tries and a total of 25 points, whereas the previous two encounters between the teams this season had seen them amass 16 tries and 125 points between them.
Bann were under pressure for much of the first half, so to be turning round just 3-8 in arrears said much for the quality of their defence. Out-half James Taylor had kicked the visitors into a 0-3 lead after just five minutes but despite their overwhelming edge in both territory and possession the students had to wait until the 35th minute try for the unconverted try from flanker John Hodnett that gave then the lead.
Scoring opportunities for the home side in the first half were few and far between, with a James Hume penalty the only points they could muster, after the young centre had carved a rare opening in the UCC defence to force a UCC infringement.
The Bann lineout, which had been so efficient against Ballynahinch the previous week, was stuttering too frequently to give consistent possession. But the home side still managed to build up a head of steam after the break, culminating eventually in a drive off a lineout which ended with replacement flanker Ryan Hughes crashing over for a try which Hume bettered off the tee.
That put Bann 10-8 in the lead with 15 minutes remaining and roused the huge home crowd as they sensed that their favourites might be on course for another comeback win.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Ben Carson had come on for Bann’s top try-scorer Andrew Morrison, forced off with a hamstring injury. And the young replacement centre was harshly penalised for what the touch judge deemed a high tackle. From the lineout that followed UCC moved the ball to the right flank where centre Paul Kiernan raced in unmarked to dot down behind the posts. Taylor’s conversion left Bann needing a try in the 10 minutes that remained.
They patiently worked their way downfield and Hume looked to be on course to make the try line after a searing break only to be hauled down short. Bann remained encamped in the visitors’ ‘22’, pressing repeatedly off the side of a series of rucks. But a penalty infringement allowed UCC to break out and see out the time remaining.
Soper referred back to the Old Belvedere game just after Christmas, when Bann let the Dublin side back into the game after the opposition had been reduced to 14 men by a red card.
“You hope things like that aren’t going to come back and bite you on the behind. But I’ll look back on the last 20 minutes of that game as the time that cost us automatic promotion.
“We need to learn from those experiences and we need to learn from today so that we make ourselves stronger challengers next year.”
Over the 18 match league programme, Bann had seven games decided by two points or less, a reflection of an incredibly tough league.
“Our two biggest winning margins were over Ballynahinch and neither of those games could be described as easy, anything but,” said Soper.
“I guess that has been the difference Division 2A and 1B. The last three or four years we always had games in the league where we were able to win quite comfortably even if we didn’t play particularly well.
“But every single one of the 18 games this season has been really, really tough and really tight. Every point in every game has counted. Every four-try bonus and every losing bonus point counted in a very tight finish to the league. I suppose we did do well to win a lot of those tight games, but if we’d turned just one of the narrow losses into a win then we’d have won the league.”
“We’re not too far away but the teams that lost to us by those narrow margins are saying the same thing. When you look how hard it was for us to win some of those games to put ourselves in the position that we finished, the thought that we got so close and didn’t finish the job makes the disappointment of defeat today all the greater.
“The last month has probably been the toughest four weeks we’ve ever had and the biggest month in the club’s history in terms of profile of the games. We had that one point defeat at UCC followed by the big home game against Bohs which earned us a home draw in the play-off semi-final the following week against ‘Hinch. And then today’s final – those four games have been really tough. You only play four in a row once a season in the AIL and that’s at the start when the players are fresh.
“We had a few guys today playing under an injury cloud. Maybe with a bigger squad you can play fresher guys and that keeps you going. So we need to start looking at that for next year.”
It was a cruel end to a season which had seen Bann achieve so much, following their promotion at the end of the previous campaign. But when the players and coaches have got over their disappointment at falling at the final hurdle, they can reflect on a season which saw them finish as the top Ulster side in the All-Ireland League.
“We set goals at the start of the year,” said Soper. “One of those was to finish above Ballynahinch and Ballymena. We did that and it’s something we should be very proud of.”
Next season will bring its own challenges, with Malone and Armagh joining Bann, Ballynahinch and Ballymena in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League. Two seasons ago UCC knocked Bann out of the Division 2A play-offs at the semi-final stage and the Rifle Park lads responded by winning the league outright the following year. Who’s to say they won’t respond in similar fashion to this latest set-back?
Certainly the club and players have been greatly encouraged by the good wishes and support they have received from local businesses and sports clubs as well as neighbouring rugby clubs. And there is a determination within the squad of players to go one better next season and take that final step.
Bann team v UCC:- Adam Ervine (Capt), Conor Field, Andrew Morrison, James Hume, Ben Carson, Jonny Little, Jason Gribbon, Eric O’Sullivan, Peter Cromie, Michael Cromie, Chris Allen, Stephen Irvine, Caleb Montgomery, Nic Hayes, Greg Jones. Replacements:- Johnny Weir, Stuart Cromie, Mike Bentley, Ryan Hughes, Josh Cromie, Neil Kilpatrick, Ben Carson.