Kevin O’Keeffe’s coolly-struck penalty steered UCC to a gripping 18-17 win over high-flying Ballymena at the Mardyke on Saturday afternoon.
The Cork students' first triumph since their promotion from Division 1B saw them erase a 14-point deficit with a superb final 50 minutes' play.
Former Ireland international Bryan Young, who is part of Ballymena's coaching team, slotted in at loosehead prop for this trip down to Cork, starting alongside Ireland Under-20 hooker Adam McBurney and Chris Cundell.
The Braidmen looked in very good fettle when crossing for three tries during the opening half hour, blindside Connor Smyth joining string-pulling centres Mark Best and Martin Irwin on the scoresheet. Best, who added one conversion, took his season's tally to 32 points in three league outings.
Playing conditions at the Mardyke were perfect, and following a great break by Glenn Baillie, Ulster squad member Best, who had really hit the ground running in the Ballymena jersey, finished off the move with a nice hand-off for an unconverted sixth-minute try.
A well-worked back-line move – sparked by a crisp service from half-backs David Shanahan and Baillie – saw Jordan Foster come in from his wing to cut through midfield. He timed his pass perfectly to put Irwin in the clear for Ballymena's second try, to the left of the posts. Best added the extras for a 12-0 advantage after barely nine minutes' play.
On the half hour mark, UCC kicked a penalty through Kevin O'Keeffe – a nice curling effort off the winger's right boot – but when a drive by the Ballymena pack put another try on the board, with flanker Connor Smyth getting the touchdown, it looked as if that the visitors' pre-match optimism was well founded.
However, when previewing this round 3 fixture, Ballymena boss Andy Graham anticipated a 'difficult game' from 'tricky opposition' and that is exactly what his players got.
A try in the left corner from full-back Chris McAuliffe gave UCC a huge lift on the stroke of half-time. From a ruck in the 22, precise passes from Charlie O'Regan and Murray Linn, with Cillian Ansbro running a decoy line, sent McAuliffe over. A further boost came when O'Keeffe's difficult conversion attempt bounced over off the crossbar, making it 17-10 at the turnaround.
The lively home backs then conjured up a second try just as the second half seemed to be ebbing away. With four minutes left, replacement James Kiernan took advantage of poor tackling – with Best the biggest culprit – to race through wide on the left for a fine individual try from 40 metres out.
The difficult conversion proved beyond goal-kicker O'Keeffe but, handed another opportunity by the tireless UCC pack in the second minute of injury-time, he brilliantly converted a closing penalty to see his side battle past one of the division's main promotion contenders.
Referee: Joy Neville (IRFU)