Ballymena Academy brought their star-studded team to the Eisenhower Playing Fields on Saturday for the 4th round Danske Bank Ulster Schools Cup match. Both sides had a top 8 seeding and were entering the competition for the first time but, thanks to the weather, neither team had managed to play a competitive match for almost a month.
Ballymena, featuring two Irish Schools U19 players (Houston and Moore) and two Ulster Schools U19 payers (Jordan and Savage), were the bookies favourite but Royal had the home advantage and had attracted a large crowd of vocal supporters. ERGS quickly showed they had little respect for bookies odd’s and attacked Ballymena, forcing them to kick for position. Full back Alex Parke, carrying the remnants of a flu bug, made considerable yardage when he retrieved one such kick and when his backrow colleague Alex Armstrong, carried towards the visitor 22m line, Ballymena were penalised for the “tackler not releasing”. Out half, Reece Smyton slotted the kick to put ERGS ahead by three.
For the next five minutes Royal hammered into the opposition. Angus Keys, at outside centre, was particularly effective and won another penalty for Royal which Smyton drove down into the Ballymena half. The visitors regrouped and using their superior size and weight made their way back up field with carries by both backs and forwards. When Royal’s lineout failed following a measured kick from Ballymena’s impressive out half, Bruce Houston, Royal found themselves defending an opposition scrum on their own 5 metre line. The visitors won the scrum, moved the ball to their strong centres and were quickly joined by their back row who drove over the line before Royal could reform their defence. Houston converted and the visitors went ahead by 7 points to 3.
Royal came back strongly and were very unlucky not to go back into the lead. Ewan Haire, at scrum half, retrieved a Ballymena kick and set Enniskillen’s left winger, Alex Holder, free to allude a couple of Ballymena players before passing inside to his captain, the ever-present Jack Rutledge. Rutledge committed the remaining defenders before attempting to off-load to Parke coming up on his shoulder. Unfortunately for Royal the pass snagged on a defender and Parke, one of the most illusive runners on the field, was denied a simple run in to score.
For the next 10 minutes Ballymena lived up to their reputation showing excellent ball retention, great organisation, and accurate passing. They had Royal pinned inside their own 22m and while another score was almost inevitable, the fact that it took so long to achieve was down to excellent defending by Royal. Ballymena’s sizable scrum half picked from the back of a scrum in front of the home posts and fed to his number 8 who took the ball on the run. At very best the pass was flat but the referee let it go and the visitors drove over for their second try. Houston converted to leave the score at 14-3 in favour of Ballymena.
The second half started competitively and Royal were unlucky when the referee missed a clear off side from a Ballymena kick that would have left the home side with an attacking position deep inside the visitor’s 22m. Ballymena made the most of their good fortune and, staying with their power game, forced their way, phase by phase, up to Royal’s line before driving over for a converted try and an 18 point lead. It’s to the Fermanagh team’s credit that they did not stop attacking and Ballymena paid them the compliment of keeping their starting 15 on the pitch despite their lead. This turned out to be a wise move as the next 10 minute period was completely dominated by Royal and was a good reflection of the team’s real potential. With Ballymena well and truly pegged inside their 22m, Jack Rutledge completed an outstanding captain’s game by picking from the back of a scrum and driving over. Smyton converted to bring the score to 10-21.
Following the restart there was a pivotal moment when Royal, still in dominant mode, pushed a kick deep into Ballymena’s half. Had the ball reached it’s planned destination Royal would have been competing for a line out on the Ballymena 5 metre line. Unfortunately, it bounced the other way, went over the dead ball line and the referee brought them back for a scrum from where the kick was taken. Royal competed well for the remainder of the half and had their chances. During the last few minutes of the game fatigue came into play and Royal gave away 4 penalties in a row to allow Ballymena to work their way up to the Enniskillen try line. Their exceptional inside centre, Stewart Moore, side stepped the defence, as he had been doing all morning, and dived over for the last try. Houston converted with the final play of the match and brought the score to 28 points to 10.
While the final score flatters Ballymena, they were the stronger side and although Royal had very little in the way of luck they can be pleased that they were in the game until the very end. Jack Rutledge had an inspirational game and with his two colleagues, Alex Armstrong and Reece Barrett, justified their own reputation as one of the best back rows in Ulster school’s rugby. Smyton kept Ballymena’s lauded out half, Houston, from having any attacking impact on the game and Haire’s box kicking and distribution were excellent.
Ballymena move on to play Campbell in the Cup quarter-finals while Royal play Dalriada away in the Trophy quarter-finals in two weeks time.