The only home game at Kilraughts Road on Saturday was Ballymoney II v Portadown III.
Ballymoney started with a few changes in the side; David Holmes was chosen to lead the side in the absence of Chris Clarke. In the pack Matthew Blair added some bulk to the front row as Andy Brown got a run with the 1st XV, and Jordan McCaw came back into the frame for the first time this year at open side.
In the backs, Andy Borthwick and Russell Irwin were called up from the 3s to add some experience and hard yards to the midfield, with Andy McNaugher on the wing.
As the initial rainy squall cleared, the first 10 minutes were largely even – both sides starting to establish a set piece, and the visitors having the bulk of the play. Already their big runners, particularly the tight head prop, were making some yards, and Ballymoney were scrambling on occasion.
However, the lineout defence stood firm, after some hard training sessions, and the effort around the fringes was excellent, putting the Portadown side under pressure. And in the 9th minute, Matthew Dunlop cashed in on that pressure with an interception, and ran in the 60 yards to score.
Irwin added a penalty 10 minutes later to make it 8-0, but Ports were battling hard, and had much of the possession – and on 26 minutes they crossed the line after a series of drives had sucked in the defenders.
Ballymoney started putting a few phases together for themselves, and began arguably their best spell of the game, camping out in the opposition half for most of the next ten minutes. On 33 minutes this was converted into their second try, with Andrew Millar drawing all of the attention on a fine dummy run, leaving a gaping chasm for Andy Borthwick to trundle through from 30 yards for a try under the posts. Dunlop somehow conspired to miss the conversion to leave it 13-5.
But Portadown came back before half time, again with sustained phases in the Toon 22, and this time it was a missed alignment in a scrambling defence that let the fullback in for the visitors’ second try, to leave it 13-10 at half time.
In the second half, Ballymoney made a few changes, with David Calvin coming into the back line to lend his bulk and experience to the centres with Borthwick. Craig Anderson also stepped into the pack to replace Hewitt. Portadown were now without their best runner in their tight head prop, and the young Ballymoney side knew they needed to press home their advantage.
But the first 10 minute of the second half were a disaster for the home side, as over-eager defending gave away a series of penalties at the breakdown, which allowed the visitors to score a converted try and a penalty to take it to 20-13 after 51 minutes.
Try as they might, the Ballymoney side found it hard to get going after that, and despite a few good runs from Calvin and Rea in particular, they perhaps tried too hard to force the play – the next 15 minutes was scrappy to say the least. But eventually a few phases were strung together, forcing a penalty at the breakdown. From the lineout in the corner a series of strong drives finished with Sam Bartlett, who had come on for Blair, burrowing his way over. Irwin converted for 20-all, with 15 minutes remaining.
Ballymoney had the game to win at this point, but almost immediately fell behind again with a couple of penalties allowing the visitors to gain first territory, then convert for a score to go ahead 20-23, on 68 minutes. And as time progressed again Ballymoney tried too hard to force the last pass, leaving dropped balls and knock-ons for the visitors to relieve the pressure.
In the dying seconds of the game, Ballymoney mounted one final push, and after a few phases, Millar released the strong running David Rea up the left wing. Having beaten defenders all day, it looked like the winning score was on, but the fullback managed to make a fine cover tackle, and the match finished, much like that move, just a few feet short.
Reflecting on the performance, the young side can have much to take away as positives against an experienced and well drilled side. But with a numerical advantage and gaining yards all over the pitch for much of the game, what remains is a sense of disappointment, which must be turned into determination to get it right this week against Ballynahinch IV and get on a winning track after several decent performances, but ultimately no wins yet this season.