A superb final quarter performance steered St. Mary’s College to a hard-earned victory over Ballymena at Templeville Road, as the Dubliners replaced the Braidmen at the top of Ulster Bank League Division 1B.
This was a game that was always likely to be eventful, as both sides have made strong starts to the Ulster Bank League campaign. With five wins from five, Ballymena were top of the table before kick-off, while victories over Dolphin, Shannon, Blackrock and Buccaneers saw St. Mary's sitting in third place.
Playing in warm and sunny conditions, St. Mary's broke the deadlock in the fourth minute when their young out-half Sean Kearns split the posts in confident fashion from 35 metres out.
However, with Ulster squad member John Andrew leading by example in the front row, the visitors responded positively to this early concession.
Although a series of scrums was making it difficult for either side to build momentum, Ballymena were working through their attacking phases quite effectively, and referee Sean Gallagher awarded them a 14th minute penalty inside the hosts' 22.
They backed their forwards to deliver the points as Ritchie McMaster plunged a penalty into touch, setting up a period of intense pressure close to the St. Mary's line. Number 8 Matthew Rea dully drove over from quick ruck ball in the left corner for an unconverted score.
Kearns sent a penalty opportunity wide in the 24th minute, but St. Mary's did get a stranglehold on possession as the first half wore on. Leinster winger Darragh Fanning was certainly becoming more prominent from an offensive point of view.
Ballymena held firm during a tricky period, however, and with just one minute left before half-time, powerful centre Rodger McBurney, fresh from an appearance for Ulster Ravens, crossed the whitewash at the end of a lung-bursting run that saw him speed through into the 22 and step inside Fanning's tackle to get over.
This looked like being a hammer blow for St. Mary's, but after out-half McMaster was once again wide of the mark with his conversion attempt, a second successful Kearns penalty late on made it 10-6 at the turnaround
St. Mary's captain Rob Sweeney was forced off at the interval through injury, but following a persistent spell of early pressure on the resumption, scrum half Robbie Glynn did really well to touch down under pressure from two defenders with just three minutes gone.
With their tails now up, Kearns converted for a 13-10 scoreline. Yet, in a similar vein to the opening half, the Braidmen quickly swung the pendulum back in their favour.
Andy Graham's well-drilled side once more gained a foothold inside the St. Mary's half and when a gap appeared towards the right flank, lock Alan O'Connor, whose younger brother David was playing in the same position for the home team, powered over in clinical style from close range.
Despite missing his third conversion attempt, McMaster created further daylight on the scoreboard with a superbly-executed drop goal off his left boot for 18-13.
St. Mary's were now chasing the game in the final quarter and following timely introduction of fresh legs by head coach Peter Smyth, Kearns knocked over a three-pointer from straight in front of the posts.
One of the new men introduced, Barry O'Flanagan, was tackled shy of the line six minutes from the end, but there was no stopping fellow replacement Tom O'Reilly who crossed from a well-timed pick and go.
The leaking of that try really deflated Ballymena's challenge and it proved to be decisive score a finely-balanced game. And after Kearns followed up his conversion with a clinching fourth penalty from long range, the victors hit top spot in the division courtesy of their superior scoring difference.
Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)