Ballymoney opened the Ulster Qualifying One campaign with a tough opening fixture against last year’s league champions, Clogher Valley.
On a cool autumnal afternoon, and with both sides showing a few new faces among the more familiar, there was a sense of anticipation in the crowd as the teams warmed up.
Ballymoney handed debuts to Matthew Steele, fresh from a strong season at Dalriada, Chris Watson returned to the midfield from a season at Ballymena, and Jonny Linton took up the 15 jersey, looking to make a claim for a more permanent position after and interrupted season last year.
With club captain Chris Beverland suffering a setback in his knee injury recuperation, Peter Irvine took the captain’s armband for the day.
The first half opened with an early warning shot - one penalty in midfield, a rolling maul straight from the training ground, and the Tyrone men were 7-0 up before the spectators had settled down. But the rest of the half was much more competitive, with Ballymoney regularly attacking with sustained possession in the Clogher half.
But the visitors showed their ablity to cross the whitewash with every opportunity. A well executed move up the blind side of a scrum 30 yards out allowed the winger to flnish well, and then a scrum 5m out let them in again - but those were really the only attacking chances that were being handed over.
Ballymoney, by contrast, had several clean breaks, notably through Watson in the outside centre channel, but could not find the support to finish the move. And with three tries down, any kickable penalties were being put in the corner to try to catch up from an early stage.
The home side were also making full advantage of this year’s rule change allowing ‘rolling subs’ - Sam Kyle and Matthew Blair were swapping regularly to withstand the heavy scrummaging unit in front of them. How teams use this change will be important to see over the coming months, but it certainly helped Ballymoney on this occasion.
The second half continued in much the same vein, some sustained possession from the home side, and a few breaks but no points to show for it. In a tired looking last 20 minutes, the extra size advantage of the visiting pack took its toll, and three more tries were scored.
At the end of the game, it finished 38-0 for Clogher Valley. As is often the way, the scoreline didn’t fully reflect a hard working performance from Ballymoney against a very tough opposition.
Coach Jason Taggart, embarking on his 10th season as coach, observed, “This is a new team, it’s going to take time to develop the cohesion required at this level.
“It was a tough start against a team that have played together for 4 or 5 years. But I’m confident that this young side will gel together soon.”
In calling out particular performances, John McFettridge, Jonny Linton, and in particular Matthew Steele stood out today.
This week sees Ballymoney travel to Portadown, who lost 27-3 to Instonians this week. Ballymoney II host Clogher’ Valley II while Ballymoney III travel to Donaghadee. Ballymoney IV are away to Armoy, in an interesting local derby.