The scoreline may have flattered Cork Constitution slightly but the defending champions did more than enough to deservedly claim top spot in the final Division One table for the third year in-a-row.
AIB LEAGUE: DIVISION ONE: Saturday, April 18
CORK CONSTITUTION 54 BALLYMENA 23, Temple Hill
Scorers: Cork Constitution: Tries: Richie Lane 2, Frank Cogan 2, Ed Leamy, Dara Lyons, John Stringer; Cons: Jeremy Manning 4, Richie Lane; Pens: Jeremy Manning 3
Ballymena: Tries: Craig Woods, Bob Young; Cons: Craig Woods 2; Pens: Craig Woods 3
But Cork Constitution coach Brian Walsh well knows that finishing top of the pile gives his side no devine right to the title. Con’s haul of just two Division One titles in the last ten years shows just how difficult the play-offs are to negotiate.
In their own coach Jacques Benade’s last game in charge, a much-changed Ballymena put in a spirited performance despite the fact that their top flight survival was already assured.
They took an early 10-3 lead, surprising the home crowd with a converted try and penalty from goal-kicking scrum half Craig Woods.
But Con gradually found their rhythm and with Munster out-half Jeremy Manning directing their play, they worked winger Richie Lane and number 8 Frank Cogan (2) over for three tries before the interval.
Manning kicked three penalties and a conversion in the opening half to help his side to a 23-16 half-time lead, with Woods kicking two late penalties for the Braidmen.
But Ballymena fell off the boil in the second half and a converted try from lock Bob Young was all they could muster in response to Con’s increasing dominance.
Tries for Ed Leamy and Dara Lyons, both converted by Manning, effectively put the result beyond doubt.
The fact that Con were able to put 21 points on the visitors while down to 13 players – back rowers Peter O’Mahony and Cogan were sin-binned in quick succession – shows the current gulf between these sides.
With the bonus point and a home semi-final tie against Clontarf in the bag, Con cut loose in the closing stages for two more tries.
Lane and John Stringer, brother of Munster and Ireland scrum half Peter Stringer, took the hosts’ try tally to seven.
Con do have a number of injuries to look after ahead of next Saturday’s semi-final at Temple Hill but they will be confident of progressing, given their 17-3 win over Clontarf at this stage last year.