Galwegians made history by becoming the first Connacht club to qualify for the Bateman Cup final since UCG in 1936 when they won a thrilling nine-try contest against Ballynahinch at Crowley Park on Saturday.
These two sides got to know each other very well having played home and away fixtures in recent weeks in Ulster Bank League Division 1A. Both coaches were forced to make extensive changes from last week's league encounter at Ballymacarn Park where the Ulstermen ran out decisive 33-16 winners.
Howeve, it was Galwegians who proved they had the greater strength in depth when they shaded this epic 66-point encounter in Glenina.
Playing towards the clubhouse end, Ballynahinch made the brighter start and should have taken the lead in the opening minute when scrum half Chris Gibson crossed the line, only to knock on following a try-saving tackle from young 'Wegians centre Alan McMahon.
A sluggish 'Wegians failed to heed the warning signs, and they went behind on eight minutes when a clean lineout take by Dave Nolan was turned over. 'Hinch centre Jordan Grattan then hacked clear, and flanker and Ireland Sevens international David McGuigan was on hand to finish off by sauntering under the posts. The opening try was converted by Chris Quinn.
This seemed to rouse the hosts from their slumber, and they quickly set about gaining a stranglehold on proceedings. In the 15th minute they opened their account with their first try, hooker Juan Anaya getting on the end of a forward rumble to touch down near the posts. Out-half Aidan Moynihan added the easy conversion to level the game.
The home pack were now getting on top, and 'Wegians deservedly went in front in the second quarter with their second try. It came following an astute kick from scrum half Barry Lee which forced a close range attacking lineout. And when Anaya again hit his target man Nolan, it was déjà vu as the Blues pack rumbled towards the line in unstoppable fashion, with flanker Josh Pim this time grounding the ball.
Moynihan landed an excellent conversion from the right, and the Macroom native soon tagged on a penalty and a drop goal to give 'Wegians a commanding 20-7 lead with barely half an hour gone on the clock.
At this stage the hosts looked like they might run away with the game, but credit to Derek Suffern's side who never lost self belief. They gave themselves a lifeline when winning a penalty in the 35th minute, and in what was their first foray into 'Wegians territory since their opening try, they made it count with lock Jonny Madden finishing off near the right corner for a second try. However, this time Quinn was unlucky with his conversion attempt which rebounded off the post.
'Wegians again responded well to the concession of a score, and when Hinch scrum half Gibson was sin-binned in stoppage time for a deliberate knock-on, it set up yet another attacking lineout in the corner.
After another clean catch by Nolan, once again the visiting pack were unable to deal with the maul, and this time lock Marty Cummins peeled off and burst over to score try number three. Moynihan was off target for the first time with his conversion, but the Blues were good value for their 25-12 half-time lead.
The Galway men lost their temporary advantage of an extra man soon after the restart when blindside flanker Matt Towey was binned in the 43rd minute. It did not take the visitors long to capitalise, as barely three minutes later a good phase of attacking play was neatly finished off by full-back Manihera Eden who skipped through the defensive cover to dot down near the left corner. Quinn was off target with the difficult conversion, thus reducing the margin to eight points.
'Wegians, however, regained the initiative, and when Moynihan kicked an excellent long range penalty to the corner on 56 minutes, there was a sense of inevitability about the outcome. Anaya found that man Nolan once more, leading to another forward surge which the visiting pack were helpless to prevent, and this time prop Doron McHugh claimed the touchdown. Moynihan landed a magnificent conversion from near the touchline to give his side a 15-point advantage, and at this stage the Blues looked home and hosed.
Both coaches had by now rung the changes from the bench, and full credit is due to 'Hinch who suddenly found an extra pep in their step. They were now playing all the rugby and asking questions of the Wegians defence. On 66 minutes they were rewarded with their own fourth try when prop Craig Trenier finished off some relentless pressure by diving over out wide on the left. This time Quinn found his range to reduce the margin again to eight points.
Buoyed by this score, 'Hinch came back straight from the restart and again laid siege to the 'Wegians line. In the blink of an eye they crossed the whitewash for a fifth try, this time replacement back Justin Rea diving over on the left. Quinn nailed the conversion and despite having been outplayed for long periods of the contest, astonishingly the Ulster Senior Cup champions were now just a solitary point behind (32-31), and with the momentum seemingly behind them with more than ten minutes remaining.
This set up a dramatic finale, however not for the first time the pendulum swung back in this enthralling game. The Blues steadied the ship with team captain Ja Naughton, sprung from the bench, and captain on the day Brian Murphy, in particular, giving leadership to their younger team-mates and keeping cool heads.
Not surprisingly it was another lineout which helped seal the deal in the 74th minute, with replacement hooker Patrick Curran this time finding Cummins. And although 'Hinch kept their try-line intact, they conceded a penalty under the posts which Moynihan duly converted to give his side a four-point cushion.
'Wegians sensibly closed out the game in opposition territory. And despite their best efforts, the visitors were unable to break out of their half before referee Shane Kierans blew the final whistle, much to the joy and relief of the home faithful.
Matt Brown's charges will face defending champions Cork Constitution in the final after they defeated a much-depleted UCD at Belfield. The final will be played on the weekend of April 30-May 1, with the venue to be confirmed.
Referee: Shane Kierans (IRFU)