City of Armagh won their first ever First Trust Ulster Senior Cup final last night courtesy of a thrilling 17-13 win over Ballymena at Kingspan Stadium.
2017/18 FIRST TRUST ULSTER SENIOR CUP FINAL: Tuesday, December 19
CITY OF ARMAGH 17 BALLYMENA 13, Kingspan Stadium
Scorers: City of Armagh: Tries: Andrew Smyth, Thomas Campbell; Cons: Cormac Fox 2; Pens: Cormac Fox
Ballymena: Try: Callum Patterson; Con: Callum Patterson; Pens: Callum Patterson 2
HT: City of Armagh 3 Ballymena 3
City of Armagh, appearing in their first ever Senior Cup final, came out of the blocks with plenty of early possession and almost crossed the whitewash on two occasions, only for last gap interventions by Ballymena full-back and captain Rodger McBurney.
The Braidmen worked their way into the game, and an indiscretion at the breakdown from Armagh presented the first scoring opportunity on 16 minutes, but centre Callum Patterson’s penalty attempt from just outside the 10-metre line was pulled just to the left of the posts.
A couple of minutes later, Patterson had another chance from an almost identical position, and he made no mistake this time to get Andy Graham’s Ballymena side off the mark. Armagh responded through young out-half Cormac Fox who confidently converted from the 22-metre line to bring his team level.
With half-time approaching, Armagh lock Joshua McKinley made a superb break in the midfield to open up the Ballymena defence. The ball was recycled wide right and hooker Andrew Smyth made a dash for the line but was stopped inches short. Play was shifted to the opposite wing and full-back Tim McNiece dived for the corner, but the cover tackle of Patterson dislodged the ball before McNiece could touch it down.
Coached by former Ulster and Connacht flanker Willie Faloon, Armagh started the second half where they had left off, applying early pressure, despite being down to 14 men as second row Robert Whitten was yellow carded just before the break.
As the intensity lifted, Ballymena began to put some structured phases together, and Patterson got the first try of the game on 58 minutes as he picked and drove over from close range, before adding the conversion to put his side 10-3 in front. Patterson stretched the Ballymena lead to 13-3 with a well-struck 64th-minute penalty.
However, when Ballymena number 8 Adrian Hamilton saw yellow for a late tackle, Armagh made the most of the numerical advantage with two tries in the space of five minutes. Firstly, a driving maul saw hooker Smyth crash over for a score which man-of-the-match Fox converted.
Then, with 73 minutes on the clock, replacement Thomas Campbell sniped over from the right wing with a neat finish to put Armagh in front for the first time, with Fox’s touchline conversion making it 17-13. Ballymena poured on the pressure in search of a match-winning score in the final minutes, but the Armagh outfit were not to be denied the historic victory.
In claiming the scalp of Division 1B club Ballymena, Armagh, who are currently fourth in Ulster Bank League Division 2A, will advance to the Bateman All-Ireland Cup semi-finals in the New Year. It is a big mid-season boost to the club following recent disappointing news of their captain Ali Birch’s retirement due to medical reasons.
Birch will remain involved at the Palace Grounds, having joined Armagh’s coaching panel as assistant forwards coach. The experienced former Ulster back rower, who stood down following a series of concussions, will work closely with the existing coaching team of Willie Faloon, Chris Parker and David Eakin.
With the SONI Ulster Premiership and First Trust Ulster Senior Cup titles already secured, Armagh’s 2nd XV will line out at Kingspan Stadium tomorrow night to compete for the Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup against Ballynahinch 2nd XV.
CITY OF ARMAGH: Tim McNiece; Ryan Purvis, Chris Colvin (capt), John Faloon, Robert Faloon; Cormac Fox, Harry Doyle; Philip Matthews, Andrew Smyth, Philip Fletcher, Joshua McKinley, Robert Whitten, James Morton, Stuart Hooks, Neil Faloon.
Replacements: Michael Hoey, Daryl Morton, James Hanna, Thomas Campbell, John Pollock.
BALLYMENA: Rodger McBurney (capt); James Beattie, Callum Patterson, Alan Smyth, Michael Stronge; Glenn Baillie, David Shanahan; Bryan Young, James Taggart, Chris Cundell, David Whann, Connor Smyth, Stephen Mulholland, Marcus Rea, Adrian Hamilton.
Replacements: Andrew Ferguson, Houston Bonnar, Mark Foster, James Gallagher, Matthew Norris.