City of Derry 8, Ballymena 3
The game didn’t deserve it. City of Derry certainly did!
If Mark Nicholl’s team go on to secure promotion to AIL Division 1B seven games from now, those who persevered through 80 horrible minutes of rugby will have witnessed one of those, ’Were you there moments?’ at Judges Road. It may not yet be on the scale of, say, the remarkable Irish Junior Cup success of January 2010 or the battling promotion play-off at Portadown that same season but it could prove as decisive.
Derry were 90 seconds away from slipping terminally out of the AIL 2A title race. Defeat to Ballymena would have been unthinkable, a draw only ensuring they remain outsiders at best. The Judges Road men never make things easy and they appeared to have blown their big chance to win when centre Neil Burns inexplicably struck the post with an easy looking 15m penalty with three minutes remaining. A yellow card for the returning David Funston followed two minutes later and suddenly Derry were starting down the barrel of that unthinkable defeat.
It was all hands to the pump inside the Derry ‘22 when Ballymena full-back Rory Drysdale slipped a low kick under the home defence. Simon Logue looked second best but made the ball his and grounded it for what most spectators expected would be a pressure relieving ‘22 drop-out with 82 minutes already showing on the clock. Not Logue. The full-back sprinted to the ‘22 and kicked downfield to enter a race for possession which only the bounce beat him as winger Matt Johnson gratefully covered but he couldn’t hold on and when the ball was spilled, Derry had a scrum.
The Derry pack, with the returning Bob McKillop superb, had held the upper hand all afternoon and when they once again got the better of the visitors, Jack Caithness fed the ball out to Mark Robinson at out-half. The out-half in turn fed centre Adam Bratton and looked to worked a return but the former Ballynahinch player sold a superb dummy and charged through the Ballymena line, holding off one despairing late tackle to crash over the line amid euphoric scenes.
It was a breath-taking finish to a game which never got close to pre-match expectations but Derry and Head Coach Mark Nicholl didn’t care.
“It was a must win game and I am absolutely delight because I thought we were the better team for most of the game,” explained Nicholl, “We didn’t take our chances but at the end of the day we got the right result.
“We made a few changes just before the winning try with Andrew Semple coming off and Mark Robinson coming on at out-half. It just changed things a bit. Andrew wasn’t at his best so it changed the tempo when Mark came on. We knew we had something in the tank at that stage and I’m absolutely delighted.”
The victory moves Derry back into third spot in what is developing into one of the tightest title races in recent seasons with five teams still harbouring promotion ambitions. Derry are four points off the leaders Galwegians whom they travel to on Saturday, March 1st but every game is vital.
Results are all that matter and it’s a good thing because there was little else to get enthused about on Saturday. Neither side was at their best and, until the closing moments, neither seemed willing to take the necessary risk that might open up the opposition. Ballymena were more than a little cynical in their play and should have had at least one yellow card before Marty Irwin eventually left the field on 74 minutes.
The visitors set the tone for an awful afternoon’s kicking when Drysdale somehow missed from 10m in the opening minute. Things scarcely improved over the next 40 minutes as the sides went in scoreless at the interval.
Ironically when Derry finally broke the deadlock on 50 minutes through a Burns penalty, Drysdale found his own range within six minutes and the sides were level. The game seemed destined to be consigned to history as a drab draw until the game’s one bright spark as Logue intervened and set up Bratton for his grandstand finish.
Drab? Not a chance!