Second-placed Ballymena kept the pressure on Division 1B leaders Galwegians as they came from behind to beat Ulster rivals Belfast Harlequins 17-13 at Eaton Park.
(Video highlights from Harry Cook – Image Media Films)
Andy Graham's men were made to fight all the way for their eighth victory of the campaign, which hung in the balance until winger and man-of-the-match Jordan Foster touched down with only four minutes left.
Ritchie McMaster converted that try and Stephen Mulholland's effort earlier in the second half as the hosts fought back from a 13-3 half-time deficit. Harlequins' points came from a Rory Scholes try and his Ulster colleague Michael Heaney kicked a conversion and two penalties.
'Quins enjoyed much the better of the opening exchanges, almost monopolising the ball and testing the Ballymena defence to its limits. That defence has served the Braidmen well this season and again it stood firm, with Martin Irwin (pictured above) and Paddy James sealing up midfield and the pack dug in to halt a succession of 'Quins attacks.
It was scrum half Heaney who broke the deadlock with a 14th minute penalty to put Adam Larkin's side in front, and fellow former Ireland Under-20 international Scholes followed up with a converted try.
From a well-executed lineout drive, the ball was released to the Harlequins backs and after some good link-up play, full-back Scholes came in at pace to take an offload from centre Mark Wylie and end up between the Ballymena posts for a scored which Heaney (pictured below) comfortably converted.
Ritchie McMaster, who had had bad luck with a couple of long distance penalties, finally found his range to get Ballymena off the mark, but not long after Heaney restored the 10-point lead (13-3) with his second penalty of the day.
The second period began in much the same way as the first, with 'Quins attacking but failing to make any real inroads on the Ballymena defence, and slowly but surely the home pack was beginning to assert itself.
But it was a moment of individual brilliance from winger Foster which put his side on the winning trail. A 'Quins lineout just inside their own half was routinely won and Heaney's subsequent box kick was fielded by Foster who evaded the onrushing chasers and then set off on a 40-metre sprint down the right touchline.
He found Matthew Rea in support, and with John Andrew and Dave Shanahan also backing up superbly, the ball was eventually moved left to McMaster who put Mulholland (pictured below) through a gap and the number 8 covered the last 20 metres to score between the posts. McMaster converted for a 13-10 scoreline.
The rest of the game belonged pretty much to Ballymena and following a terrific 30-metre lineout drive, which took the Braidmen well into 'Quins half, the ball was moved left, with Foster coming in behind the centres to find a huge gap and get to within 10 metres of the try-line. The final pass went astray and the chance appeared to have been lost, but the ball was regathered and Ballymena continued the attack.
Following some good phase play, Shanahan found McMaster who passed to Ricky Andrew. He slipped the ball inside to Sean Taylor and when he was tackled, the ubiquitous Shanahan was on hand to carry on the move. When Foster got the ball there was still a lot to do, but he weaved his way through the 'Quins defence to score near the left corner.
McMaster's successful conversion meant that a penalty was no longer any good for Harlequins at 17-13 down. Indeed, the Ballymena pack took over completely and the rest of the game was played out almost on the Belfast club's try-line, with referee Stuart Gaffikin twice ruling that Ballymena had been held up by the increasingly desperate defence.
Referee: Stuart Gaffikin (IRFU)