Banbridge rounded off their All-Ireland League season with a sixth try-bonus win on Saturday.
Old Wesley travelled to Rifle Park proudly bearing the mantle of Division 2A champions but they came up against a home side determined to end their season on a high as coach Daniel Soper highlighted in the aftermath.
“I gave the lads the option of only training once this week,” he said, “but to a man they chose to turn out for the two sessions, so I knew that they were well motivated for this one.
“Perhaps Wesley were a bit complacent, especially in the first half. But I thought that if we had plenty of width to our game and move the ball around that we could turn them over.
“We didn’t want to get into a forward battle against a bigger stronger pack. And we won enough possession to use the pace in our threequarters to build up a good lead at half-time. Then in the second half I thought we defended really well as their pack began to dominate.”
Wesley enjoyed good field position for most of the opening quarter hour and deservedly went ahead through Darren Horan’s try on 15 minutes, converted by Ian Cassidy.
But Bann struck back four minutes later, with winger Adam Ervine taking Andrew Morrison’s long pass to scorch in at the corner flag after the centre had made the first of a number of breaks through the Wesley midfield defence.
Cassidy’s penalty two minutes later took the score to 5-10 but virtually from the re-start Stephen Irvine found a gap off a ruck 30 metres out and barged and weaved his way to the posts, with Aaron Kennedy adding the conversion for a lead that Bann were not to relinquish.
Wesley full-back Rory Stynes did threaten to make Bann pay for a series of missed tackles as he sliced through the defence to set up a good attacking position.
But Barry McLaughlin failed to capitalise from the penalty opportunity that accrued and when play went up the other end Kennedy stretched the home side’s advantage to 15-10.
Bann picked up their third try just before the interval, with that Morrison-Ervine combo again doing the damage after a quickly-taken penalty had pressurised the visitors’ defence to allow Morrison’s neat off-load to put his left winger in at the corner. Kennedy was on target with the testing conversion to open up a 12 point margin.
Five minutes after the break it was Morrison again who created the bonus point score with a surging 60 metre run from a quick lineout re-start inside the home “22”. Ervine took it on to set up a ruck from which Jonny Little made further inroads into visitors’ territory before setting Kennedy clear on a run to the posts, with the scrum half adding the extras.
Out-half Alan Large gave his side hope with a fine individual try two minutes later, Cassidy adding the conversion with a tidy drop kick.
And after the referee had issued a warning to both sides for repeated infringements at the breakdown it was home No 8 Irvine who paid the penalty at the next ruck as he earned a yellow card for his efforts.
That increased the pressure on the home line and within a minute Cassidy had crossed for his team’s third try and added the drop kick conversion to reduce the deficit to just five points.
It took a mighty rearguard action over the 14 minutes that remained for Bann to prevent the score that would, if converted, have given the champions the win. But they just held out to ensure that they consolidated their fourth position in the table.
Coach Soper reflected on a season which had started poorly but improved since Christmas. “We could look back on a number of games that we should have won but didn’t. When you think that we picked up a losing bonus point in every game we lost it just shows what might have been.
“We beat the champions and drew with the runners-up (Blackrock) so that shows how competitive we’ve been. We’ve just lacked that important consistency throughout the season. We also need a bit more depth in the squad.
“But the injuries saw some players get their chance. Clarke McAllister came in at flanker on Saturday having only played 60 minutes in that position the previous week at Ballynahinch. But he’s abrasive and strong and I thought he did really well.
“Next season we’ll have three more AIL games after the re-structuring and with home and away fixtures there’ll be a chance to do more homework on the opposition. It’ll be a tighter league and I’m looking forward to it.
“Hopefully we can add a few players to the squad as well as add some players coming through from the ranks of this season’s Under-18s.”