Ballymena 17 Ballynahinch 20.
James Kirk reporting from Eaton Park.
Ballynahinch laid down another marker ahead of the AIL with victory at Ballymena on Saturday. Brian McLaughlin was able to welcome back flanker Oli Loughead and centre Rory Butler following long lay-offs and give debuts to Hilton Gibbons in midfield and Bradley Luney at lock.
On an excellent day for attacking rugby Hinch comfortably defended early Ballymena pressure and looked dangerous on the counter. One Connor Phillips breakout from his own line almost led to a score as Butler and Loughead linked in midfield. Unfortunately Butler’s injury woes continued as he injured his hamstring in the process.
Further Hinch possession earned them penalties and Paddy Wright kicked them into a six point lead lead. Hinch continued to play enterprising rugby only for handling errors to stall their progress and a yellow card for Gibbons following a high tackle let the home side take control. Matthew Dick scored after a series of forward drives to give Ballymena a narrow 7-6 lead at half time.
The game was won in the third quarter of the match, with Hinch having almost complete control of possession and territory. They scored a superb team try from the kick-off with multi-phase carrying from the forwards and good use of width meaning Ballymena eventually ran out of numbers and wing Connor Phillips was able to send the outstanding Conall Boomer in for the score. Wright added the extras for a six-point lead.
A rare foray into Hinch territory saw Ballymena reduce the arrears with a penalty, but the Hinch forwards then took control, with John Donnan dominating the lineout and the hard-carrying Hinch pack laid siege to the Ballymena line.
Kelvin Hamilton was eventually held up but from the ensuing 5 metre scrum Boomer picked up and headed for the line. When the ball was recycled hooker Conor Piper was able to drive through his man from close range for the score. Reaney converted for a ten point lead.
Ballymena came back into the game in the final quarter as Hinch gave away a succession of penalties at the scrum and the breakdown. Loughead saw yellow and Hinch were forced to defend with 14 min. They soaked up the Ballymena pressure well and the hard work on conditioning done over the summer with Glenn Kyle was clearly in evidence.
Hamilton forced an excellent turnover and it was only a lapse in concentration that let Ballymena replacement Josh Bill in for what proved to be a consolation score. The away side duly closed out the match for a win which was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.