More of Ballymena's home voodoo

 

About this time last year Ballymena's rot had set in and the rumour mill was rife that Andre Bester's, shall we say, quirky coaching had fostered an unhappy camp. All that has changed utterly up Eaton Park way, where on Saturday they deservedly toppled the league leaders to record a fourth home win in succession.

Last season Bester used more players, 32, than any other coach in the AIB League campaign and a severe exodus ensued. However, the young South African coach has clearly mellowed, and with a little help from the hugely influential Dion O'Cuinneagain, Ballymena are not only a happier camp but unrecognisable from last season, even more so in terms of style than personnel.

Now engaged to a local girl, Bester still has a highly active coaching mind, and remains a compulsive talker, but seems much more at ease. In the satisfying aftermath of this victory Bester alluded to all of this and tacitly accepted that he had learned from his first trying season with the Ulster club in the AIB League.

"I knew that we could play that type of rugby. Last season I struggled to come to terms with the mix of amateurs and professionals, because I come from a professional ethos. In fairness to the players, I probably wouldn't have let them play like this last season and it's taken us a long time to play like this, but it will do their (the players) confidence the world of good."

This performance, Bester agreed, was Ballymena's best of his season-and-a-half in charge. Although their seasoned rolling maul bailed them out in the final quarter, there was a willingness to support the ball-runner and offload before or in the tackle to keep the ball off the ground and moving, frequently spinning it back and forth across the pitch to stretch Munsters' to breaking point and beyond.

Both Shane Stewart's and Mark Blair's tries in the first half were the product of this broad-minded approach, and with the likes of Dion O'Cuinneagain and Chris McCarey in the backrow, not to mention a former Maori Sevens player in the twinkle-toed ex-Hawkes Bay outhalf Simon Broughton (23), and fellow Kiwi Shane Stewart, the style suits their talent.

The latter two are both qualified for Ireland through parentage or grandparentage, and Bester talked up their credentials in characteristic fashion again here, citing Stewart as the best outside centre in Irish club rugby.

There was a fluidity to Ballymena's running game which showed this really is the only way to play Young Munster; not the battering ram tactics employed by St Mary's and Shannon.

O'Cuinneagain carried a groin strain into the game and his mobility was clearly impaired but he's still Ballymena's most influential player - hence the pleas for him to play the first 40 and then keep him on for an hour, which may cost him a place in the A squad next week.

McCarey was excellent, his breakdown work doing much to contribute to Ballymena's first-half flow of quick ruck ball, and proving to Bester that the under-21 number eight's best position is openside.

Bester reckons that a top four place is a feasible target. "If we win our home games and pick up one away game. I still think we can afford one more away defeat." Given their slightly typical Ulster mentality, as manifest by a 100 per cent home record, whereas they haven't even picked up a bonus point on the road, it helps their cause that they have six home games as against five away.

Like Ballymena, Munsters have four games against fellow top four aspirants and could easily be dragged back into the pack. This was a curiously sluggish performance, especially in the first-half, when they made far too many turnovers, lacked accuracy in the basics and were lucky enough to be only 20-6 in arrears at the break after just three visits to Ballymena territory.

Scoring sequence: 4 mins Stewart try, Mason con 7-0; 8: Cregan drop goal 7-3; 13: Mason pen 10-3; 15: Cregan pen 10-6; 18: Mason pen 13-6; 37: Blair try, Mason con 20-6; (half-time); 46: Lynch try, Cregan con 20-13; 51: Cregan pen 20-16; 54: Mason pen 23-16; 64: Cregan pen 23-19; 80: J Topping try 28-19.

BALLYMENA: S Mason; J Topping, S Stewart, R Botha, S McDowell; S Broughton, M Edwards; N McKernan, A Stewart, C Millar, M Blair, G Longwell (capt), A Graham, D O'Cuinneagain, C McCarey. Replacements: D Topping for Graham (52 mins), A Dougan for O'Cuinneagain (60), W McAllister for Millar (72), J Park for McDowell (83).

YOUNG MUNSTER: M Mullins; J Carey, M Lynch, L Doyle, T Cregan; E Buckley, M Prendergast; D Clohessy, M Hayes, P Clohessy, M O'Halloran, P O'Connell, I Dillon, M te Pau, G Earls. Replacements: B Buckley for O'Connell (72 mins).

Referee: A Lewis (Leinster).