Try, try and try again

John Colthurst

Copy Editor

Photo: Peter Wolfe

DUFC 24 – Ballymena 11

Like Blackrock before them, Ballymena Rugby Football Club came to College with plenty of history to parade before the Museum Building looming just beyond the rugby ground. The club has turned out not mere players, but figures of historical standing in the Irish and global game, such as Dr Syd Millar and Willie John McBride; from the surrounds of Slemish Mountain, former stomping ground of St Patrick, they combined as coach and captain of the 1974 British and Irish Lions to tour South Africa undefeated. Like the exploits of their fabled forerunner, their endeavours have passed into legend.

They won the All-Ireland league in 2003 and some of their most prominent latter day Irish internationals include David Humphreys, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and last year’s Ulster player of the year, Chris Henry. But like Blackrock, it was a case of recent history repeating itself here as the Students passed another test, albeit also passing up an opportunity for another bonus point.

Ballymena had lost their first two matches by a combined 85-8, whereas Trinity followed up their 29-11 bonus point win over Blackrock with a dogged 22-16 victory in Dungannon’s Stevenson Park and another promising performance in the Leinster Cup semi-final, reported in brief. Ballymena kicked off towards the Hamilton, with the wind at their backs and a bright sun in Trinity’s eyes.

After the usual back and forth of boot to ball as each team tried to find their feet and field position, a breaking ball was hacked down the field and the Ballymena cover hassled into touch on their 22 by winger Nisi Adeolukan. An early marker – of red hue – was the overthrown Trinity lineout, which signalled much struggling at the set pieces; another was the penalty won a few phases later by number eight Jack Dilger, from which Trinity went quickly, spread the ball wide and then knocked on.

From a strong scrum platform, the Ballymena 13 broke through the tackles of both Trinity centres, with fly-half Cathal Marsh penalised for not rolling away from the eventual tackle. The Ballymena man also failed to immediately roll away, although he had more legitimate cause as his heavy limp deposed. The Ballymena kicker missed just to the right of the posts from a central position just inside the Trinity half.

The subsequent 22 kickoff inevitably found out the same man, who took time out from his treatment to catch the ball, kick it back and then finally find respite on the sidelines, his injury hobbling his team’s back play for the rest of the game, with a kick-first policy effectively replacing him.

Losing one attempted trick lineout at halfway, Trinity got away with another just five yards from their line, Dilger claiming. With their clearing kick quickly returned, fly-half Cathal Marsh then made a sure touch up towards the halfway line, and this time Trinity disrupted Ballymena’s lineout, forcing a knock-on.

This only served to show the other face of the set piece coin that was Ballymena’s currency for the afternoon. They pushed Trinity off their own ball and drove towards their 22. A knock-on hardly stopped their momentum as their forward drive continued, with flanker Brian du Toit and McLoughlin doing well to secure the ball at the base of the scrum on the back foot, and Cathal Marsh giving his forwards a fillip with a good clearance.

“Trying, trying and trying again, Trinity finally got their try as hooker Warren Larkin burrowed over to the left of the posts, with Marsh converting – the score 7-0 after 30 minutes.”

From more sterling set piece service, lock Max Waters and du Toit did well to hold up one Ballymena runner, winning a scrum. Turning this one, Ballymena then sent their number 4 straight through the Trinity line and 22, only for du Toit to shortcircuit what was building up to a very big charge, winning a penalty ten yards out in front of his own posts.
Waters won the subsequent lineout on his 22 and the Ballymena 5 then gave away a very foolish penalty to allow Trinity send the ball into opposition territory. After losing consecutive lineouts, Adeolukan stretched over the touchline to try to keep the next kick in play, passing to fellow winger Neil Hanratty, who weaved through the wandering defence, only for play to be called back for Adeolukan’s flailing foot in touch.

Ballymena again lined up their big runners from this lineout, with Dilger bouncing off one, but centre Paddy Lavelle bouncing in to intercept a pass. McLoughlin quickly kicked in behind and the covering Ballymena defence kicked the ball out at their 22. Winning their own ball in the air this time, Trinity then showed just how wasteful they had been, as their maul made up the whole 22 yards to the Ballymena tryline, although they now couldn’t get the ball back to ground.

When Ballymena did clear, Hanratty ran it right back at them, and past a few of them as he broke inside their 22. McLoughlin passed cleverly inside to Dilger, who also got the ball over the line but could not ground it. Du Toit was next to make a break, with Dilger held up over the line once more. Trying, trying and trying again, Trinity finally got their try as hooker Warren Larkin burrowed over to the left of the posts, with Marsh converting – the score 7-0 after 30 minutes.

Ballymena kicked deep from the restart and McLoughlin insouciantly let the ball bounce over his shoulder and the dead ball line, casually setting up a scrum in the middle of the pitch. Although this was provisionally Trinity’s, Ballymena quickly made it their own, turning over the ball and winning a penalty from retreating second-row Jack Kelly, struck well by Scott Gibson to make it 7-3.

The next Trinity lineout was a textbook throw from Larkin to Kelly and, having mastered the walking part of the process, the maul was up and running, Ballymena yielding another 20-odd yards and a penalty. With Trinity applying pressure in the Ballymena half, their 12 was penalised and sent to the sin bin for hands in the ruck. Marsh’s kick, from the righthand touchline, was just held up by the wind and perished on the lower lefthand post.

“Although the try conversion was missed, Ballymena led 8-7 with about half an hour to go.”

Ballymena kicked deep and Trinity were penalised for coming in the side of their own ruck. From far out on the righthand side, Ballymena’s kick dropped just short of the posts, Dilger kicking it through them and out for halftime. Prop Martin Kelly and flanker Pierce Dargan were replaced by Shawn Pitman and Alan McDonald respectively.

McDonald made an immediate impact with a driving tackle, but his teammates were then penalised for piling in. A great kick from the Ballymena fly-half set up a lineout just five yards from the Trinity line. With Trinity’s coach clamorously calling the Ballymena lineout, and the Ulstermen apparently calling his bluff, Kelly followed the seer’s prophecy and fatefully stole the ball. Unfortunately McLoughlin didn’t see the barriers to his clearing kick, which was blocked and bounced into the exposed Adeolukan’s hands, who certainly did see what was coming before he was dumped into touch.

The resultant lineout was unopposed and hooker John Andrew soon scored after Trinity gave ground tackling too high. Although the conversion was missed, Ballymena led 8-7 with about half an hour to go.

With the ball having been kicked back to Ballymena, McDonald put in another thundering tackle, the ball being awarded to Trinity after it became unplayable. The scrum was clearly a talking point at halftime and it was a turning point here as Trinity now had a platform to play from, halfway into Ballymena territory.

After Lavelle tore inside, tying up defenders, Larkin and Dilger carried it on right under the opposition tryline. With the forwards having done the vertical work, the backs moved it horizontally, Marsh’s quick hands putting Adeolukan in at the lefthand corner. Leaving it to the forwards to score closer to the posts might have been a consideration, but Marsh stretched the play and himself to convert from the far touchline, making it 14-8.

Dilger, after throwing himself headlong about with reckless abandon, was soon replaced by Dargan, and Lavelle likewise nearly played himself off the pitch, sticking his nose in and getting it bloodied; although his white jersey had a few more red details than his teammates’, he stayed on. Outside centre Ciaran Wade and full-back Dave Fanagan were replaced by Ariel Robles and James O’Donoghue respectively.

Trinity were now well on top at the scrum and it showed as Pitman started to show up and show off in loose play, shimmying and sidestepping with the spring in his step. From another Ballymena kick into Trinity’s half, adroit handling by Robles angled Lavelle into some space, with du Toit and Pitman pushing on beyond the opposition 22. Such was the rush towards the posts that the ball was rushed out of a ruck under the posts and spilled.

The same spirit, however, saw Trinity bundle Ballymena off their own ball. A brilliant ball-and-all tackle on Marsh sent the ball bouncing back out of the 22. Robles, covering across, collected the ball, but kept to its trajectory as he ran back and across the oncoming defence, despite the cries of “forwards!” from the sidelines. Like a pinball shooting out of a slingshot, on seeing an opening he suddenly surged straight from the Ballymena 10-yard line back to the 22, with O’Donoghue on his shoulder and Hanratty slashing in sharply. Back under their posts, Ballymena conceded a penalty, converted by Marsh for a 17-8 lead.

“Leaving it to the forwards to score closer to the posts might have been a consideration, but Marsh stretched the play and himself to convert from the far touchline, making it 14-8.”

Ballymena’s 4 won the high kickoff and replacement hooker Paddy Carroll was penalised for hands in after ruck was called, Gibson’s second score restoring the one-score differential at 17-11. A retributive run by Carroll established play back in the Ballymena half. Another scything tackle by McDonald allowed Waters get his body over and his hands on the ball, winning a penalty straight in front of the posts, about 25 yards out, which was simply stroked over by Marsh for a 20-11 scoreline.

Having kicked first and left any questions of the defence until later, Ballymena now had to answer. Although their blindside flanker did break through the first line of the Trinity defence, Robles’s tackle resulted in another penalty for the Students. The Trinity throw was crooked at the corresponding lineout, but defensive plays by Hanratty and then McDonald and Kelly (back on for loosehead prop Ian Hirst) together pushed Ballymena back.

Collecting a clearing kick on the lefthand touchline of the Ballymena 22, Adeolukan passed to O’Donoghue towards the middle, who in turn passed to Robles. Standing about 25 yards out in the inside right channel, Robles stood up and then skinned the stray defender, who was still strolling out by the time Robles touched down. A quick conversion attempt was missed, Trinity concerned with the bonus point for the season for a fourth try rather than the cosmetic two points for a conversion on the day.

Kelly, supported by his two lifters, claimed the kickoff high in the air and, even after a maul formed around him, was still the man to break out of it and back to halfway. After the ball was spread to the far left touchline, stretching play, Marsh cut right through the defence coming over, bringing the ball up towards the 22, twisting left in the tackle to pop the ball inside to Pitman powering through. Fanagan, at scrum-half in place of McLoughlin, grubbered in behind and McDonald charged on to the ball and seemingly inexorably onwards to the line.

Somehow he was stopped, and Kelly after him, the ball nearly buried so hard was the drive and the number of players in the vicinity. After enough time for a television match official to check the video just in case, the ball was extricated and Marsh beat the last couple of Ballymena defenders with his miss pass. So long had the wide players been waiting that they missed a beat, Robles knocking on as the bonus point opportunity knocked.

Given that the top three teams in this division last season finished on 57, 56 and 55 points respectively, they aren’t opportunities to pass up too often. Next up are Bruff down in Kilballyowen Park, County Limerick, who have lost their last two matches 46-3 to league leaders Malone and 42-10 to fourth-placed UCD, but beat Ballymena 25-5 in their opening match.

Trinity are second, two points off the pace, although the three teams they have defeated have lost all nine games they have played between them. They have beaten what was put in front of them, but the toughest tests have not yet been put up to them.