10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
CORK CONSTITUTION 6 BALLYNAHINCH 17, Dubarry Park
Scorers: Cork Constitution: Pens: Jeremy Manning 2
Ballynahinch: Tries: Michael Graham, John Gunson; Cons: Ryan Bambry 2; Pen: Ryan Bambry
Ballynahinch made history in Athlone as they became not only the first Division Two club to win the AIB Cup but also the first Ulster holders of the national title, breaking Munster's stranglehold on the competition.
Led superbly by captain Stuart Lamb and head coach Derek Suffern, 'Hinch have certainly provided the romance in this year's AIB Cup.
Their giant-killing acts against Shannon (15-14), Galwegians (26-22), Garryowen (24-17) and now Cork Constitution (17-6) have made Irish rugby sit up and take notice.
The fact that 'Hinch were relegated to Division Three just three seasons ago and are now AIB Cup champions (and quite possibly just a few weeks away from gaining promotion to next season's Division One Section B) only adds to the size of this achievement.
The final scoreline may suggest that this was a tight game but Cork Con, the reigning Division One champions and winners of the Munster Senior Cup this season, were very much second best on the day.
'Hinch out-half Ryan Bambry, an undoubted hero in the previous rounds, left his kicking boots at home as he missed a total of five penalty kicks.
On another day, the County Down team might have been out of sight but on the hour mark, they were still only 7-6 ahead.
'Hinch fielded the same starting line-up which overpowered Garryowen in the semi-final, a blend of committed and talented club players, underage internationals and two Ulster-contracted forwards in Neil Hanna and Willie Faloon.
Munster out-half Jeremy Manning led a Cork Constitution back-line that included provincial hopefuls Tom Gleeson and Evan Ryan at centre, while stand-in captain Billy Holland and prop Timmy Ryan were the Munster caps in the Leesiders' meaty pack.
With the difference in the clubs' league positions - Con are third in Division One and 'Hinch third in Division Two - many observers were anticipating a comfortable win for Brian Walsh's outfit but from the off, it became apparent that this would be a hard-fought tussle.
With the wind behind him, Manning missed a drop goal attempt in the third-minute and the two New Zealand-born place-kickers were off target with their opening penalty attempts.
The tackling and competition for possession at the breakdown was ferocious and Suffern's charges were not giving an inch.
Con enjoyed some good early territory but 'Hinch were dominant in the scrum and lineout with their front row and locks Chris Napier and Gareth Rourke excelling in those areas.
On the Con side, Munster Under-20 scrum half Chris Nolan, stepping in for the injured Duncan Williams, put in two smashing touchfinders to keep the pressure on 'Hinch.
If the battle up front was going 'Hinch's way, Con looked quite capable out wide. With the game still scoreless, a beautiful pass from Evan Ryan sent full-back Dara Lyons into open territory on the left.
He linked well with the supporting Ryan and Gleeson but 'Hinch scrambled back in front of their posts to retrieve the situation and maintain the deadlock.
It was then Manning's turn to break down the left and a try looked on as he hared through but the cover got to him in time, hauling him down just metres short before Lamb and company won turnover ball.
Learning from his earlier miss, Manning curled a lovely penalty effort through the posts, from right to left, after 27 minutes to move Con into a 3-0 lead.
But 'Hinch, after a second Bambry miss, commanded much of the remainder of the opening half with scrum half Harry McAleese, fearless full-back Jonny Cullen and rampaging flanker Faloon getting their side on the move.
Inside the Con 22, 'Hinch pressed for a try and the hard graft of their forwards was rewarded on 34 minutes when after a period of brilliant ball control and continuity, blinsider flanker Michael Graham piled over to the right of the posts for the score.
McAleese turned off the base of a ruck and opted to switch play back out to the right where he passed for Faloon to make a half-break and taking two men with him, the openside showed great strength and awareness to offload and send Graham over.
Bambry added the conversion but some of the gloss was taken off that try when Manning, just a metre or so inside the 'Hinch half, fired an excellent penalty kick over in the last minute of the half.
Having struggled for the latter stages of the opening period, Con (although 7-6 down) would have turned around the happier but Ballynahinch made a stunning start to the second half.
They flew out of the traps with their pack seizing control of possession and McAleese giving the likes of David Harris and Aaron Ferris a chance to stretch their legs.
Con looked stunned as the outstanding Faloon went on two lung-bursting runs right through the heart of their defence and after that, Napier was almost over for a try in the left corner.
The match officials ruled that the big lock had put a foot in touch under pressure from two defenders, but television replays showed that he might well have kept his body in play as he dotted the ball down.
Bambry was off target with a subsequent penalty attempt and he also flashed a drop goal shot to the right and wide, after a lineout steal from Graham.
Manning showed a glimpse of his quality when he broke through 'Hinch's midfield, over halfway, only for his pass to be knocked on by Ryan as Con tried to counter from deep.
Whereas 'Hinch were putting in a team effort through every phase, Con were playing more and more as individuals as the half wore on.
Wingers Cronan Healy and Simon Zebo were asked to conjure up some magic but 'Hinch's defence was rock solid and it tells you a lot that it took the inaugural AIB Cup champions the guts of a half-an-hour to get close to the 'Hinch 22 in the second half.
With the game going against them, Con suffered a sizeable blow when they lost both Nolan and Manning to injuries.
Nolan had to come off after shipping a heavy knock and two thumping tackles left Manning in need for treatment. Richie Lane and Tim Kenneally came on in their place with Ryan and Lyons slotting into the half-back roles.
'Hinch continued to dictate the play and their all-round efforts were typified in the 58th minute when props Gerry Cronin and Chris Stevenson sandwiched the onrushing Gareth Murray with a huge hit which led to a kickable penalty.
Again Bambry failed to convert but he managed to raise the assistant referees' flags, six minutes later, when he nailed his kick after great pressure at the breakdown from the Down side.
Now 10-6 in arrears, Con tried to dig deep and get back within scoring range. Holland, Cogan, Healy and Merle O'Connell never gave up the fight but as a unit, 'Hinch were much more cohesive.
From 1 to 22 their hunger to succeed simply overwhelmed Con at times and that eagerness produced some timely turnovers in the closing stages.
Being able to bring on highly-rated Ulster Academy front rowers Paddy McAllister and David McGregor for the final minutes gave 'Hinch an added boost.
McAllister squeezed a scrum penalty out of Timmy Ryan with seven minutes remaining but Bambry's penalty kick went narrowly wide.
Con got right back on the offensive after that, yet just as they began to build through the phases on the 'Hinch 22, inspirational skipper Lamb ripped the ball away for a huge turnover and McAleese's kick down the left bounced perfectly into touch.
Roared on by a big and very vocal travelling support, Ballynahinch mustered the perfect finish to the final when their pack worked their way to within metres of the Con whitewash.
With just a minute remaining, AIB man-of-the-match Lamb pumped his legs and was stopped just short of the line before replacement John Gunson picked off the base and used his long limbs to stretch over for the match-winning try.
Bambry redeemed himself by adding the extras and Alain Rolland blew for full-time soon after, bringing about scenes of mass jubilation for the players, management team, club officials and supporters of Ballynahinch.
After winning their first ever Ulster Senior League title this season, they have now added the AIB Cup to the trophy cabinet and who knows what lies further down the road for a squad so well-drilled by Suffern and his fellow coaches Daniel Soper and Brian McLaughlin.
CORK CONSTITUTION: Dara Lyons; Cronan Healy, Tom Gleeson, Evan Ryan, Simon Zebo; Jeremy Manning, Chris Nolan; Gareth Murray, Lloyd Gabriel, Timmy Ryan, Merle O'Connell, David Kelly, Billy Holland (capt), Peter O'Mahony, Frank Cogan.
Replacements used: Johnny Moloney for Kelly (48 mins), Richie Lane for Nolan (52), Tim Kenneally for Manning (55), Ed Leamy for O'Mahony (60).
BALLYNAHINCH: Jonny Cullen; Aaron Ferris, Stuart Morrow, David Harris, Kyle Corrigan; Ryan Bambry, Harry McAleese; Chris Stevenson, Neil Hanna, Gerry Cronin, Gareth Rourke, Chris Napier, Michael Graham, Willie Faloon, Stuart Lamb (capt).
Replacements used: Paddy McAllister for Stevenson, John Gunson for Rourke (both 70 mins), Robert Greer for Graham (71), David McGregor for Hanna (75), Lewis Johnston for Cronin (77).
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)