A bonus point win in this Ulster derby saw Banbridge go top of Division 1B of the All-Ireland League, with previous leaders Naas having had their planned Friday night fixture against Old Wesley re-scheduled for November.
Bann coach Simon McKinstry had said after the Naas game the previous weekend that he was looking for another step-up from his charges. So was he satisfied with how they had dealt with the challenge of visitors Ballymena?
“Of course,” the former club skipper responded.
“That was the best we’ve played so far this season. We talked about maintaining good discipline and not giving them an easy way into the game. I think we only gave away two penalties in the first half.
“Against that Ballymena will have been disappointed with their penalty count, as it gave Adam Doherty three chances which he put away off the tee - that was important in building up a decent gap by the interval.”
An early Ballymena infringement saw Doherty’s line kick set up a five metre lineout, from which the Bann pack’s surge for the line was finished off by Stephen Irvine operating off the flank.
Doherty converted and added those three penalties, with Irvine desperately unfortunate not to double his try tally when he was held up over the line immediately before the break, after good support play from James Hume and Mike Bentley, a replacement for the injured Caleb Montgomery.
The visitors rarely threatened the Bann line in the first half, with their only contribution to the scoring coming via the boot of out-half Tim Small after Bann had conceded a rare penalty.
Ballymena’s cause was not helped by two yellow cards, one either side of half-time to back row forwards Stephen Mulholland and Clive Ross after the referee had issued a warning for repeated infringement.
Doherty’s fourth penalty, five minutes into the second half, took his side 19-3 ahead. And with Ross still sitting out his ‘suspension’ on the sideline, the home side struck twice in four minutes to create a 28 point gap with 25 minutes remaining.
Centre Andrew Morrison was the architect on both occasions, his line breaks and off-loads putting winger Conor Field and scrum-half Niall Armstrong in for tries, with Doherty adding the extras to the latter.
Ballymena then enjoyed a lengthy spell inside the home “22” with their big forwards bludgeoning at the Bann line. But a spilled ball relieved the pressure and Bentley’s 50 metre breakout took play to the opposite end of the pitch. Strong carries by Irvine and lock Alex Thompson set up a ruck within a metre of the Ballymena line and replacement scrum-half Aaron Kennedy burrowed over to earn his side the bonus point, with Doherty’s conversion taking his personal tally to 18 points.
The game ended with another full-frontal assault on the Bann line which concluded with replacement flanker Connor Smyth forcing his way over for an unconverted try which will have done little to ease the losers’ pain.
“We spoke at half-time about getting more multi-phases, getting into double figures and trying to stretch them,” said McKinstry.
“And when we did that the tries starting coming.”
With Bann losing winger Adam Ervine to injury early in the game and then midway through the first half having to replace Montgomery, who had taken a big knock, Bann’s use of the bench was less planned than it had been the previous week.
But McKinstry said that the performances of injury replacements Ben Carson, Bentley and Ross Haughey (on in the second half for Corrie Barrett) gave further evidence of the strength of his squad.
“Last week the bench had a big impact. Today we had to use them in a different way - they had to come on earlier and do a different job, but they all did well. We’re going to need them all as the season progresses with the knocks coming thick and fast.”
The coach picked out the performance of Morrison, the creator of those two tries that sealed the win. “He was very good, threatening every time he got the ball and his partnership with James (Hume) is working very well, with James posing an equal threat and taking the pressure off his centre partner.
“And Alex Thompson made a significant contribution, not just out of touch, but also with a series of big carries.”
Next up for Bann are Old Wesley, who visit Rifle Park this Saturday. McKinstry is expecting another big game.
“They beat us in Dublin last year and we had a narrow win at home. With those injuries we’ll not know our line-up until late in the week, but we know we’ll have to work hard again if we’re to pick up another win.”
For photos see page 50