This was semi-final agony for Ballymoney as they were pipped at the post losing 13-19 at home.
Toon were beaten in the last 5 minutes by a very good Ballynahinch 2nd XV.
All of the build-up to this Millar McCall Wylie Ulster Junior Cup semi-final was about the dogged Ballymoney forwards, and the precision of the back line from the senior side. That forecast was to prove very accurate indeed as the Toon worked hard throughout to starve Hinch of the ball, but came up just short in the end.
Ballymoney lined up with James Cleland at scrum-half and Chris Beverland returning to the side in the backs - and top scorer Jonny Hanna was back in action after his honeymoon to bolster the forward pack.
Overnight rain meant a wet pitch, but with the rain easing off before kick-off and the wind dying off, the conditions were good for the time of year.
With Ballymoney playing away from the clubhouse, the match started as predicted - a big contest up front, with big hits coming in from both sides around the fringes, and not much space out wide.
Ballymoney were making the most of their possession, with Jamesy Campbell winning the kicking battle comfortably, meaning that Hinch found it hard to get out of their own half, and Ballymoney were pushing the play through the strong work in the forward pack.
Ten minutes in, Ballymoney suffered a serious blow when Chris Beverland took a drive on round the fringes, but got badly twisted on landing and had to receive treatment.
Nigel Nevin came onto the wing, and John Laughlin moved to outside centre, with Ben Henderson moving to the first centre role.
When the match resumed, play continued much as before - Campbell’s boot and good ball retention keeping the pressure on the Hinch defence, which was showing good organisation and discipline to keep the Toon from creating any clear chances.
Finally on 17 minutes, a kickable penalty was conceded, but Campbell pulled it wide. Four minutes later, after a good blind side break from Cleland from a scrum free kick, a second penalty was offered, but that one also went wide.
After 25 minutes, Ballynahinch finally got their hands on the ball in an attacking position. Immediately their tactic of playing fast and wide was evident, with quick throw-ins and pacey counter-attacks forcing Ballymoney to concede penalties as the defence was stretched.
Two minutes later, a penaty for lying on let Hinch kick to an attacking position. A well organised maul gained 10 yards, the follow up drive sucked in the midfield, and a simple back play exposed a hole in the makeshift Ballymoney centres to let the first score in, converted to make it 0-7 for the Hinch.
Ballymoney regrouped to continue the previous assault. Sustained phases of play would eventually break down, but Hinch were not clearing far, so the pattern continued. On 35 minutes Campbell saw another penalty shot fall off, but finally one went over on 37 minutes to make it 3-7.
From the restart the first signs of the pressure started to show, as Hinch tried to recover some attacking ball. The kick-off was switched, Toon gathered, but the Hinch 13 flopped over the ruck to kill the ball and a yellow card was shown.
Using the extra man, Ballymoney started moving the ball a little more. Immediately some space opened for Brace and Nevin to make 30 yards up the blind side, but the cover defence was good.
Centres Henderson and Laughlin were starting to come into the game, and Hinch were stretched to concede further penalties. In the dying minutes of the half, a penalty was kicked to the corner. The forwards took the drive on 10m, rolled on for an extra surge to reach the line, and after a careful look the try was awarded. Jonny Hanna emerged from the pile-up with the ball to claim his 7th try for the year. The conversion was good from Campbell to leave it 10-7 for the Toon at half time.
The second half continued in the same vein. Playing towards the clubhouse, Ballymoney had most of the pressure and possession. But increasingly Hinch were disrupting the scrum and ruck ball, which made it hard to create clear-cut chances. Irvine had come on for Watson in the scrum, but this made little impact to the pattern.
On 50 minutes, Hinch served warning of their ability to break free with a good counter from their 13, back on after 10 mins rest. Ben Henderson and John Laughlin were both scrambling well and putting some big shots on when they were needed.
After 56 James Cleland made a break up the right, and the forwards continued to pick and go, but were unable to break the line. After many phases and camping on the line for what seemed like 5 minutes, a penalty was scant reward for the effort. 13-7 Toon.
With Ryan Clyde coming on for Garvin Bellingham to add his power to the proceedings, Ballymoney were gearing up for a strong surge to put the game away. Hinch, however, were looking to exploit a tiring defense, and changed their number 8, which would prove crucial.
On 65 min Hinch had a scrum near the centre spot. The replacement 8 picked and went, showing great pace and selling a dummy to break the Ballymoney line, and put his winger away calmly to score the try. The conversion was missed, leaving the score 13-12 with 15 minutes to go.
Hinch continued pushing hard winning a penalty for a ruck offence that was kickable, but missed on 70 minutes. Three minutes later a good counter attach from the Hinch back line created some space. The grubber kick was put through and the 7 looked certain to score, but he was pulled back for being offside. The Toon defence was starting to tire, and Hinch were enjoying their best spell of possession.
Realising that the game was still there for the taking, Ballymoney fought back to retain possession. A penalty shot from a line-out offence was missed, but more good pressure was keeping the home crowd on their toes.
As the play continued, Ballymoney were attacking but conceded a penalty in an attacking ruck. Hinch took it quickly, and made 30 yards with a few good phases. From the halfway line, some good lines opened up a space in midfield, and this time the winger chipped the fullback and gathered to score an excellent try.
With the score now 13-19 for Hinch, both sides threw everything at the last 5 mins, hitting hard and forcing errors. The Toon had a final assault with another Hinch man seeing yellow for cynical play - but too many mistakes at key moments let a tiring Toon team down in the end as they were unable to score again.
The final whistle went with the score 13-19. Ballymoney were clearly overwhelmed that all the effort had been snatched away, with Ballynahinch celebrating a bruising win to reach the final at Ravenhill.
Ballymoney were left reflecting on a good strong forward display, a commitment to the game plan, and a few mistakes in the end that made the difference between the two sides.
The final will surely be a cracker, as both sides have recent big game experience at Ravenhill, Ballyclare the co-holders of the Towns Cup, and Hinch beaten finalists in the Junior Cup last year.
Coach Beddow acknowledged the quality in the Hinch side, and was philosophical in defeat. “We threw everything at them, but you could see the quality in their side when they got a chance. In the end a couple of missed tackles and a little bit of fitness proved the difference. But this is a quality Hinch side, and we have to admit we were beaten by a good side on the day.”
Jason Taggart echoed that sentiment,“We definitely had opportunities in the forwards to finish them off, but they spoiled a lot of our ball on the ground. We showed some great defence as well, but just a few errors lost us the game - they never really threatened our line for most of the game.”
Man of the match was awarded to James Cleland, who was at the heart of most of the Toon line breaks, and played well at scrum-half despite not being there for over a year.
In other matches, the 3s lost 26-20 at Grosvenor, and the 4s lost 42-5 at Cooke.
Next week the 1st XV are back in league action, with CIYMS visiting Kilraughts Road. The 2s travel to Ballyclare, and the 3s host Academy.
Team: Sam Kyle, David Watson, Alex Houston, Danny Platt, Adrian Graham, Andrew Gardiner, Garvin Bellingham, Jonny Hanna, James Cleland, James Campbell, Thomas Skelton, Chris Beverland, Ben Henderson, John Laughlin, Ryan Brace
Subs: Peter Irvine (Watson, 40), Matthew Blair (Kyle, 70), David Campbell, Ryan Clyde (Bellingham, 60), Nigel Nevin (Beverland, 10)