Shannon show both sides of character
CHAMPIONS at the double; toil and trouble? Two times league winners Shannon revealed both sides of their character at Eaton Park on Saturday, putting forward arguments for and against their retention of the title.
There's little doubt that, with any champions, the hunger can waver, and there was even evidence of a diminished appetite in Shannon's ranks when they retained the league last season. But there also remains their enduring excellence in many facets of play, and an intuitive teamwork which has been built up over the last few seasons.
The latter was in abundant supply during a storming opening quarter. Such was Shannon's ball retention and the pressure they exerted on Ballymena on the rare occasions that the home halfbacks came into contact with the ball, that Ballymena were pinned in their own half with scarcely a sight of possession.
Inevitably, much of the initial damage was wreaked by Shannon's renowned back row. Ballymena were undermined by the absence of Johnny McCartney, Derek Topping, Colin Wallace and second row Alan Robinson.
Everybody must know what to expect, but stopping it is another thing. Ballymena can't have been any less the wiser, but their fringe defence went AWOL at two scrums inside their 22; Anthony Foley picking up at both to send Eddie Halvey sauntering over untouched for the first try before ploughing over himself for the second.
Game over? Well, it certainty seemed that way when, after Andrew Thompson and Ricky McIlmoyle exchanged a brace of pre interval penalties, Sheldon Coulter counter attacked and popped up a pass in the tackle which Brian MacGoey intercepted to score untouched.
More and more, the Shannon back row and Mick Galwey began popping up (or loitering, depending on your viewpoint) all over the pitch. Alan Quinlan again looked as good as his more celebrated back row partners, tying up the blind side, taking the ball on and augmenting his good work to loop around Galwey in midfield for Shannon's fourth try.
Leading by 32-9, it seemed Shannon were set fair to bolster their points scoring differential. Cue the mental fatigue. Now in cruise control, they let Ballymena back into the game.
Remarkably, it was around the fringes where Ballymena began to have some joy, as well as out wide where James Topping was brought into play almost frantically, the Irish winger responding as only hem knows by running with gusto in all manner of angles.
The increasingly influential; Dean McCartney and Mark Beattie plundered tries close in and English referee Geoff Warren piled on the penalty count against Shannon, who were beginning to look ragged. Ballymena came to within a score of the season's most improbable comeback, whereupon Billy O'Shea pilfered another intercept try from the home side's desperate counter attacking.
Nonetheless, Ballymena rightly took immense heart from their final half hour rally. When Robinson and Derek Topping recover from their knee injuries in a few weeks, and Johnny McCartney returns from England around Easter, their pack will be discernibly beefed up. They have a good line out, Ricky McIlmoyle's boot and the elusive James Topping out wide; and should survive at least.
With Shannon, the prognosis is more complex. Their standards are such that nothing less than another title will suffice. They have it in them; do they want it enough?