Blair takes Ballymena to the brink


Semi-finals are about winning, or at any rate not losing, no matter how. If ever there was a case in point, this AIB League Division One play-off match was it. Ballymena are in their first final and won't care a whit that this won't be catalogued as a classic.

A cloying pitch, teeming rain, a swirling wind and a proliferation of handling errors and turnovers ensured there was little fluid rugby. Even place kicks couldn't be nailed, and ultimately the game was decided by the lineouts; Lansdowne's malfunctioning horribly and Ballymena's providing the platform for two last quarter tries by Mark Blair. And that was pretty much it.

Blair is bound for Narbonne and with much of the squad expected to break up next season and so many Ulster contracted players this tilt at the AIL crown could be something of a last chance saloon.

"You play for years and years or you coach for an opportunity to play in a grand final like this," observed Ballymena coach Tony D'Arcy, sounding as if he was already preparing his final team-talk for next Saturday.

Ballymena are one of the two teams to have beaten Clontarf this season, albeit at home back in round one last October, when, D'Arcy conceded, a rebuilt and refocused Ballymena had been preparing for that one game for three months. D'Arcy knows they'll have to play considerably better, especially in terms of cutting down the error count and providing better protection for their scrumhalf David Spence.

"They're a very special team," he said of Clontarf. "They're a class team. We know we'll have to lift three or four gears on what we did today to live with them."

D'Arcy attributed Ballymena's improvement from relegation candidates to finalists in a year to the maturing of their four Irish under-21s - the excellent Matt McCullough, Scot and Bryn Young, and Neil McMillen - "and the seamless separation between the professional and club players."

That said, on this distinctly prosaic occasion, D'Arcy conceded his team were indebted to their lineout and maul, a deliberate ploy after watching Paddy Wallace miss four kicks from four.

"Conditions were very difficult and typical of semi-finals there was no space at all," observed D'Arcy. "We had to dink it over the top to get anywhere. Lansdowne's defence was absolutely first class. Ours was good too. Our organisation was first class but we didn't have as much drive in the tackle."

The die was pretty much cast for Lansdowne in the opening 15 minutes, by which time they had coughed up four of their first six lineouts. Ballymena competed superbly on the Ro Fallon throw, and even the ball Lansdowne did scramble back was generally not of sufficient quality to construct much off it, while their kicking game was simply awful.

Even with marginally the better of the elements, it was something of a backs-to-the-wall effort by Lansdowne to reach the interval scoreless; epitomised by Brian Cusack's drive tackle on Matt McCullough and the foraging and running of Liam Toland.

However, when they failed to build on Matt Leek's post-interval drop goal - even when Blair was sin binned - there was an inevitability about the outcome despite Aidan McCullen make another major impact off the bench.

Shane Horgan had a less happy return to the fray in his first outing since tearing his thigh muscle against Scotland in February, his eagerness to make an impression manifest in the panicky restart which ultimately gave Ballymena the platform for their second try.

"I'm not happy we lost, I'm not happy with our lineout - that's the first time this season it has let us down like that - and I wasn't happy with our kicking game either," bemoaned Lansdowne coach Harry Williams. "I feel sorry for the boys after all the hard work they've put in, because they can play a lot better than that."

It's small consolation for Lansdowne that they've wrought quite a transformation themselves from the side which finished 11th last season and they too face into an uncertain future. Adam Magro is Oxford bound and after losing the final three seasons ago, the senior guard will have to ask themselves if they want to give it another crack next season. But the aftermath of a semi-final defeat is not the best time to contemplate such decisions.

Scoring sequence: 42 mins: Leek drop goal 3-0; 60 mins: Blair try 3-5; 75 mins: Blair try 3-10.

LANSDOWNE: B O'Mahony; K Becker, A Magro, K Kennedy, F Baynes; M Leek, S Whelan; E Bohan (capt), R Fallon, A McKeen, S O'Connor, B Cusack, J O'Donovan, S Rooney, L Toland. Replacements: A McCullen for Rooney, S Horgan for Magro (both hal-time), M Nathan for Fallon (59 mins), J Lyne for McKeen (66 mins).

BALLYMENA: P Wallace; J Topping, M Waterhouse, H Jones, S Young; A Larkin, P Spence; S McConnell, P Shields, B Young, M Blair, M McCullough, A Graham, R Nelson (capt), N McMillen. Replacements: A Maxwell for Jones (35 mins), N McKiernan for McConnell (half-time), D O'Kane for Graham (50 mins), J Taggart for McMillen (69 mins), A Monson for Spence (70 mins), D Topping for Waterhouse (74 mins).

Referee: D McHugh (IRFU).