Ballymena are the new leaders in Ulster Bank League Division 1B after beating former front runners Galwegians 23-22 at a very wet Crowley Park on Saturday.
The Braidmen picked up their fifth and most significant win of the season to date despite being outscored by four tries to two. In the end, an excellent injury-time penalty from replacement Tim Small, struck from the 10-metre line, split the sides.
Played in dreadful conditions with incessant rain throughout, both teams clearly struggled to gain any sort of foothold early on, although Division 1B's two leading sides were making a fair fist of ball retention.
Galwegians had the wind advantage in the first half, and should have taken the lead after five minutes when awarded a penalty 30 metres out, but out-half Dave Clarke was wide of the posts.
The game remained scoreless over the first half hour with chances few and far between, however the visiting pack began to assert themselves more and more as the game wore on, especially in the scrum where 'Wegians were missing injured props Ja Naughton, Jason East and hooker Ross Fitzgerald.
The deadlock was broken after 31 minutes when good continuity play took the visitors deep into 'Wegians territory, and centre Patrick James crashed over near the left corner. Out-half Ritchie McMaster landed what ultimately proved to be a crucial touchline conversion for a 7-0 lead.
Just moments later, Galwegians prop Paul McCreanor was sin-binned after the home scrum was creaking, and McMaster added three points with his first penalty attempt to put the visitors 10-0 in front, and looking comfortable heading towards the interval.
However, this Matt Brown-coached 'Wegians team is made of stern stuff, and they showed their mettle when scoring two tries either side of the break to haul themselves right back into it.
Their opening try came from a penalty to the corner, and following clean lineout ball, prop Doron McHugh got on the end of a well-worked maul to dive over for his second try in successive games and give his side a lifeline.
If that was a shock to the visitors, they were left reeling one minute into the second period when 'Wegians full-back John Cleary latched onto his own clearance kick near halfway. And in a sublime piece of skill, he not only claimed the high ball, but also left his marker for dead to sear home and touch down near the right corner, and suddenly the sides were level again – 10-all.
McMaster soon restored Ballymena's advantage with a second penalty inside the 10-metre line, but with their full complement restored, 'Wegians smelt blood and went on the offensive.
This time it was the Braidmen's turn to have one of their forwards sin-binned for persistent offending. And when the Blues again kicked a penalty to the corner, a near-replica of the first try led to veteran lock Brian 'Beano' McClearn (pictured below) this time diving over for a third try, which put the hosts in front for the first time in the game.
The visitors were clearly rattled by this turn of events, and just after the hour mark things went from bad to worse for Ballymena when 'Wegians winger Colin Conroy intercepted a pass on his own 10m line to race clear. Although he had a huge amount of work to do, the Fr. Griffin Road speedster showed great composure and no little skill to outwit his marker and cross under the posts for a bonus point try.
Cleary landed the conversion this time, and suddenly the Galway outfit had a 22-13 lead as they inched closer to their fifth straight win of the current campaign.
This signalled an inevitable fightback by Ballymena, however they met a sturdy and determined 'Wegians defence who held their line admirably. Then with time running out, the visitors were awarded a penalty which brought play deep into 'Wegians territory.
After a scrum was reset, Ballymena put the shunt on at the next set piece and much to the consternation of the home side, Mark Connolly went under the posts to signal a penalty try. Small's drop goal conversion cleared the crossbar to set up a grandstand finish.
One feature of Galwegians' season is that every game has ended with an injury-time score, but unlike their two previous games against UL Bohemians and Buccaneers, this time it went against the Blues.
In the last play, Andy Graham's men won another scrum penalty just inside the 'Wegians half, and up stepped Small to land the long range kick and seal a dramatic victory for the visitors.
It was rough justice on 'Wegians who put in a superb second half showing, but credit to Ballymena who fought back from the dead to preserve their own unbeaten record, and leapfrog 'Wegians at the top of the Division 1B standings.
Referee: Mark Connolly (IRFU)