AFTER a fitful first half, in which it was at times difficult to know which team had promotion ambitions and which was struggling near the bottom of Division Three, Banbridge came good in the second period to pick up a maximum haul of points from this Ulster Bank League game at Ards.
A five-metre scrum gave Bann an early attacking platform after incisive runs from Ben Purvis and Ashley Finlay. But the referee penalised the visiting eight and Bann’s propensity to fall foul of the match official was to stymie many of their attacking efforts for the opening half hour of the game.
Ards were good value for their 13th minute penalty, converted by Jason Morgan, but Robin Thompson was unable to level the scores when he was handed a similar opportunity at the other end two minutes later.
The Bann out-half was pushing the opposition back into their 22 with a series of raking kicks. But the tactic was negated by a secure Ards lineout which relieved the pressure.
Midway through the first half a threatening move by the Ards backline was halted by what the referee deemed to be a deliberate knock-down by Purvis. The full-back picked up a yellow card but Morgan’s shot at goal missed the target.
The Bann scrummaging power was evident throughout and from the second of two 5-metre scrums Dale Carson picked up to set up a ruck under the Ards posts. A quick transfer to the left flank allowed Purvis to put winger Stephen Cowan in for a try at the corner. Thompson’s excellent conversion extended the gap to 3-7.
With Ards now struggling to contain the more fluent Bann attacks, home flanker Kenny McComb picked up a yellow card just before the interval for his attempts to prevent quality ball from the ruck.
Bann were quick to extend their lead after the break. Andrew Morrison and Finlay made good ground down the right flank and Purvis was on hand to finish off for a try that went unconverted.
Michael Chambers and Colin Bickerstaff replaced scrum-half Neville Farr and lock Chris Allen in the Bann ranks and in the 53rd minute Bickerstaff grabbed the third try after a James Andrews break had been complemented by a neat Michael Cromie off-load.
Thompson added the conversion to that score and also to the important fourth try, scored just three minutes later by Morrison, the Ulster U-19 centre slicing through the midfield defence to run in from 30 metres.
Both sides made further changes, Bann introducing Jonny Pollock for Cowan and James McCrum for tight-head Brian Hanna while Ards made four changes with the outcome of the game now beyond doubt.
One minute later their ranks were again reduced by the referee as McComb picked up a second yellow card. And Bann took advantage to run in two further tries in the 17 minutes remaining. Chambers went in from close range after his pack had driven Ards back at a 5-metre scrum, with Thompson’s conversion taking the score to 3-33.
Pollock was next to see yellow for a technical offence but Bann remained well in control and Thompson rounded off a sweeping move by touching down in the corner. Having picked up a slight knock for his efforts he handed over the kicking mantle to Bickerstaff, but the lock’s renowned footballing skills deserted him on this occasion, his failed conversion attempt signalling the end of the game.
Bann hold onto fifth place in the league with the unexpected defeat of Sunday’s Well by Barnhall opening up a gap to sixth place.
Coach Daniel Soper was content to have picked up the maximum haul of points from what was a below-par performance. “We got there in the end and it’s good to have that game out of the way”, he said after the match.
“Ards are going through a difficult patch and any less than five points would have been a big disappointment. But the win will count for nothing if we don’t win again this Saturday. Nenagh have always proved difficult opponents in the past and with a match in hand they will still see promotion as a viable target. We’ll certainly have to pick up on Saturday’s display if we are to keep our promotion chances alive.
“The Sunday’s Well defeat was an unexpected bonus but it just shows that you can take nothing for granted in this league. We certainly won’t on Saturday.”
Soper’s point is underlined by the Nenagh results. A 11-47 home tanking on Saturday at the hands of Greystones had been preceded by a 9-8 success at Navan and more significantly a 15-20 win at Rainey, who subsequently got the better of both Bann and City of Derry.
Quite simply Bann have to keep winning. Bickerstaff’s immediate impact on his introduction to the fray against Ards and the return to action with the Thirds of Shandon Scott gives the coach more options in selection. The battle for starting places can only help the team performance – and a win over Nenagh would be the perfect preparation for the following week’s trip to unbeaten leaders Instonians.