Ballymena RFC 12 City of Armagh RFC 34
City of Armagh Rugby Club made history on Saturday when their First XV won the SONI Ulster Premiership League title. This was the first time the club has won the Stevenson Shield, a remarkable achievement as six years ago the club’s first xv were playing junior rugby in Qualifying One.
With their only defeat in the competition coming back in August against Banbridge, the team knew a bonus point win at Ballymena would give them the title by virtue of having defeated Ballynahinch 52-14 in December.
The Ballymena team that took to the field were missing some regulars however the Armagh team was also not at full strength as three players had departed on a stag weekend.
The game kicked off and the threat of showers had passed leading to perfect dry conditions as Ritchie McMaster put the ball deep into the Armagh half. Early nerves resulted in a knock on and the home team had a great position for an early attack on the Armagh line. The visitors were able to clear their line after winning a scrum penalty and brought play up to the Ballymena half.
On five minutes, Armagh created an overlap on the left wing but Harvey Young was forced into touch on the Ballymena 22. Two minutes later, Armagh got the early score they were looking for when good hands from Chris Colvin and Ryan Purvis created the chance for James Hanna to score in the left corner. Outhalf Young kicked a fine conversion and the visitors led 0-7.
A line break from James Morton carried play into the Ballymena half but the supporting player was forced into touch and the chance was lost. Play swung from end to end and centre Norris broke through for Ballymena and only an interception saved Armagh from conceding a score.
Approaching the half hour mark, Armagh were rocked by a double injury when talisman James Morton retired with a shoulder injury. Outhalf Young also went off carrying an injury and was replaced by 18 year old Cormac Fox. Following a penalty, Ballymena won a lineout in the Armagh 22 and set up a powerful maul which resulted in an unconverted try bringing the score to 5-7 with ten minutes of the
From the restart Ballymena conceded a penalty and scrum half Harry Doyle took a quick tap and sent winger Kyle Faloon down the right wing. A high tackle was penalised and Armagh secured lineout possession 10 metres from the Ballymena line. The ball was then fed to centre Stuart Lester who burst through for a try under the posts. The conversion from Fox put Armagh ahead, 5-14. The visitors were playing with confidence and five minutes before half time they rocked Ballymena by scoring their third try. Colvin broke from midfield and again a penalty conceded by Ballymena for killing the ball was kicked into the corner. The Armagh pack was held up over the line but from the resulting five metre scrum, number eight Neil Faloon powered over a try for Fox to convert and remarkably Armagh now led 5-21. Ballymena finished the first half on the attack deep in Armagh territory. The visitor’s defence held firm and a knock on by Ballymena saw the referee blew for half time.
Armagh kicked off the second half and it was Ballymena who took the initiative, showing their experience to test the Armagh defence. Armagh turned over Ballymena possession on their own 22 and Kyle Faloon made a nice break out of defence. With 45 minutes on the clock, Armagh were attacking in the Ballymena 22 and from a ruck in front of the posts, Ali Birch broke through and stretched over for try to give the visitors the crucial bonus point score. The conversion from Fox made the scoreline 5-28 and the huge contingent of Armagh supporters dared to dream this might be their day.
The Ballymena team then raised their game and pressurised the Armagh line. The home pack were held up following a catch and drive but the pressure told on 52 minutes when Norris broke a tackle and scored a try for McMaster to convert giving Ballymena a lifeline at 12-28 with half an hour to play.
A yellow card to Neil Faloon looked ominous for Armagh but five minutes later a Ballymena lock was sent to the sinbin for a ruck offence.
It was the visitors however who stepped up to the mark and Fox kicked a penalty on 60 minutes to nudge Armagh further ahead 12-31. A scrum penalty on 70 minutes saw Fox repeat his effort and Armagh now led 12-34 with ten minutes remaining. Ballymena looked for their third try and a clever chip ahead almost saw a try scored but a knock on let Armagh clear the pressure.
The visitors closed the match on the offensive in the Ballymena half and a clever cross-field kick was secured by Birch who was held up short of the line. In the final seconds prop Philip Fletcher was stopped inches from the try line and the referee brought a thrilling match to a close.
With Armagh victorious 12-34, the Ulster League title had been won and the Armagh team and supporters were ecstatic.
Captain Ali Birch received the Stevenson shield from the league sponsors SONI and the Ulster Branch President, John McKibben. It was great to hear many Ballymena supporters congratulate Armagh on a well-deserved victory. The Armagh coaching staff congratulated the players on their terrific achievement but reminded the squad that the All Ireland League remains the main focus and attention now turns to a difficult fixture away to City of Derry on Saturday.