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Ballymena Win Ulster Derby To Go Top

Ballymena Win Ulster Derby To Go Top

Ballymena took the spoils in a hotly-contested Ulster derby at Eaton Park, holding on to beat Ballynahinch and leapfrog them at the top of Ulster Bank League Division 1B.

The Braidmen made it five wins out of seven thanks to a brace of first half penalties from winger John Semple.

It was a second defeat of the campaign for Ballynahinch, but many of the visiting supporters left Eaton Park just wondering how the County Down side actually lost this game which in truth they should have won.

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It was Ballymena's gritty defending in the second half, playing into the wind, that saw them prevail in the end.

Playing into that strong breeze 'Hinch started well and they prevented Ballymena from mounting any creditable attacks.

The visitors'sScrums and lineouts were firing well with Jonny Madden doing some great stealing work on the Ballymena ball at the front of their lineout.

In the sixth minute the visitors cut loose, Stuart Morrow and James Simpson creating the opening for Robin Harte to race up the right wing only to be stopped by a terrific covering tackle from scrum half Blane McIlroy.

In the12th minute, 'Hinch were penalised for holding onto the ball in the tackle giving Semple the first opportunity to score with a long range shot at goal. The ball was sweetly struck and Ballymena took an early lead.

The wind was really gusting at this stage and one Lash penalty kick to touch on the edge of the Ballymena 22 never made the line – the ball blew behind the goal line, allowing the home side to clear the danger.

'Hinch continued to take the game to the home side and James Thompson burst clear in the midfield in the 29th minute, sprinting deep into the Ballymena half before he was cornered by the Ballymena cover defence.

The 'Hinch supportwas slow to arrive and eventually Aaron Ferris and David Nicholson did well to make the ball available and Ballymena infringed.

New Zealander Lash had a shot at goal in the 30th minute but his attempt was held up in the wind and drifted left of the posts.

In injury-time at the end of the first half, Madden failed to roll away from a tackle on halfway and referee Dudley Philips flashed the yellow card. Semple stepped up and hit another well-struck kick to give the home side a 6-0 advantage at the interval.

At this stage Ballynahinch were happy enough with this narrow deficit with the advantage of a what looked a 15-point wind in the second half.

When the game restarted three things happened, 'Hinch started the first 10 minutes with 14 men, they ignored the wind advantage and tried to run everything from their 22.

Ballymena, to their immense credit, put in an excellent defencive performance led by their skipper Paul Pritchard who gave a man-of-the-match display.

'Hinch attempted to bash through half gaps, which closed like the Red Sea. A penalty miss by Lash in the 55th minute let Ballymena off the hook and they visibly increased their defensive efforts for the next 15 minutes.

With eight minutes to go, 'Hinch managed to build their first decent attack in the Ballymena half, taking play through numerous phases and room was eventually created for Harte to charge for the line but Semple did very well to slide underneath him and prevent the grounding the ball.

However, Ballymena had gone offside in midfield and the referee brought play back to the front of the posts for a penalty, which Lash sent over to make it 6-3.

It set up a tense finish with the visitors needing three points for a draw or a try to win, but John Andrews' Ballymena side again lifted their defensive efforts, kept their discipline, and in the end they deserved their victory.

Ballynahinch will take a long hard look at the video this week, they had most of the scoring opportunities, at least three in the first half and one in the second, while Ballymena were on the back foot for the most part.

Yet, the proper use of the conditions and their excellent discipline at the breakdown rewarded Ballymena with four valuable league points ahead of the Christmas break.

Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU)