Valley beat Ballymena 13-11 in injury time to reach another Towns Cup Final.
by Bob Beatty
On a bright sunny day but with a strong wind favouring Ballymena in the first half Valley started without injured props Moore and Bennett. They were replaced by McAleer to the starting XV and Henderson to the bench.
Within seconds Valley were penalised for holding on and Ballymena had a kickable penalty which they missed. From the drop out Ballymena were then penalised and Valley kicked to touch. Winning the line out and recycling well Valley were held up and scrum was awarded to Ballymena. Valley struggled in the scrum and Ballymena were able to clear easily and their outhalf pushed Valley back 50 metres with a huge kick.
It was to become a feature of the first half as Valley made hard yards only to be out scrummaged by Ballymena and driven back with long kicks.
With a midfield stalemate developing Ballymena lost their influential scrum half with injury and had to reorganise. From the restart Valley continued to attack but were making mistakes with knock ons, forward passes and missed tackles at key times. These errors lifted Ballymena; they started to enjoy some possession and were moving the ball well through their backs.
With the Valley scrum continually under pressure a series of scrums deep in their 22 saw a penalty awarded to Ballymena, This was kicked to leave Ballymena leading 3-0 a little against the run of play.
Following the restart Ballymena kicked deep and a poor return kick by Valley was picked up in midfield by Ballymena. They moved the ball well through their backs and although Valley seemed to have the danger covered two half-hearted tackles allowed a Ballymena unconverted try in the corner and an 8-0 lead.
Valley returned to possession rugby but were making little inroads to the aggressive Ballymena defence. Though Valley were retaining the ball well they were slow to support each other and the inevitable scrum saw Ballymena regain possession and kick Valley back to their own half.
As half time approached Ballymena converted a penalty from the half way line to lead 11-0.
Ballymena upped the pace of the game in the second half and Valley were hanging on. Valley had a penalty in the Ballymena half and strangely went for the scrum. After 3 resets they were penalised and Ballymena cleared the danger. Valley then lost centre Dunlop to injury. He was replaced by Speers and Valley also changed Baxter for Treanor in the pack.
Valley weathered the storm and began to pressure Ballymena in their own 22 for the next ten minutes. Valley were starting to make some gaps and had two good scoring chances. The first when a driving maul was held up over the line and the second when the ball was dropped when again over. McAleer was forced to leave the game with a rib injury to be replaced by Henderson and Breen replaced Todd on the wing. Valley kicked a penalty to reduce the deficit to 3-11 but it was scant reward for their pressure.
Valley returned to the attack and created several more chances but these were abruptly stopped by either a dropped ball or a forward pass. It was starting to look as if it would not be Valleys day.
Valley kicked another penalty when a Ballymena player killed the ball illegally and was also yellow carded but time was running out for Valley with less than 10 minutes left in the game.
Ballymena lifted their game and forced a penalty that they kicked to touch in the Valley 22. From the lineout their driving maul was only just stopped short of the line and they were awarded a 5 metre scrum. With Simon Shaw now on they drove the Valley scrum back and seemed certain to close out the game with a try. However this and a subsequent scrum had to be reset and they were then penalised for Valley to relieve the pressure.
Time was running out for Valley. They won the lineout and moved the ball wide. Breen made 30 metres past three Ballymena defenders and Valley were able to support and continue the move. As the ball moved back left Valley had stretched the Ballymena defence and had an overlap. However the referee had to stop play as a Ballymena player took Holme out with a late tackle which saw the out half have to leave the field with an injury.
The Ballymena player was shown a yellow card but Valley could not kick to touch as the game was effectively over. Valley restarted from half way with a tap and go. After numerous phases they were in the Ballymena 22 but penalties against Ballymena again stopped the flow of play. Valley recouped after each and continued to inch towards the Ballymena line. It was Valley at their best. The ball retention was superb and they were not allowing any chance for Ballymena to steal the ball. Valley moved Ballymena around the pitch through backs and forwards, though any mistake and the game was over.
Eventually Valley worked a gap on the blind side of a ruck and Sharkey scored in the corner to level the score and the absolute delight of the Valley travelling support. As both sides prepared for extra time Armstrong, in the blustery conditions, took the extremely difficult conversation and the ball sailed between the post for a Valley victory and a return, again, to Ravenhill for the final on Easter Monday against Donaghadee who beat Ballynahinch 2nds in the other semi-final.
Once again Valley came through in the end, even though not at their best. The commitment, endeavour and belief is there for all to see and it makes them a very difficult team to beat. They will now have to regroup and take stock of the lengtening injury list before another huge AIL round robin game at the Cran next Saturday against Connaught’s OLBC. Another must win game.