At this stage of the season, a match away to the league leaders is something to be attacked; an opportunity to shake the league up and adjust some expectations. With a good win over Ballymena under their belts, the Ballymoney 1st XV were looking to make a statement to their opposition.
The build up to this match was all about disciplined, aggressive defense. And by and large, Carrickfergus gave Ballymoney a lesson in how it should be done - the hosts were disciplined throughout, making good choices about how an when to contest the breakdown, and using a strong blitz defense to nullify any threats.
The match kicked off with a strong wind behind the Toon, and the sun high in the sky. Conditions would change throughout as the rain came on, but the wind would remain a factor for the whole game.
As the first phases came through, Ballymoney set their stall out to get the tackles in low and early - and a series of early scrums showed that the visitors had a distinct advantage in the scrums. But as play developed, indiscipline at the breakdown led to a flurry of early penalties at the breakdown, allowing Carrick to dominate possession. In particular, the Carrick maul was deep and narrow, and used to good effect to make more yards than their kicking game could in the strong wind.
Following a midfield break, David McKeeman gave away another penalty, and also received a yellow card, as the referee sought to clean up the breakdown. After all of the build up, the coaching team were distinctly unimpressed.
Carrick converted that penalty to take the lead, and another followed shortly after. At this point, and with a full complement back on the pitch, Ballymoney started to keep a bit more ball in hand, and some kicks that had gone long in the wind started to land, finally allowing the game to be played in the Carrick half. And sure enough, a penalty came in Ballymoney’s favour, which was well converted by John Laughlin.
But next up was a hammer blow; a break up the Carrick right hand wing sucked in the defense, and some quickly recycled ball allowed the winger some space. John Gilkinson bundled him into touch just on the line, and the danger was thought to be averted - however, the tackle was deemed to be high, despite the attacker diving for the line, and so a penalty try was awarded, and a yellow card for Gilkinson.
As has been the case this season, an injury to Laughlin then forced a reshuffle, with Andy Borthwick forced to take a place in the back line, which certainly changed the attacking options. The half closed at 16-3, with Ballymoney finally starting to hang onto some possession and looking to play better into the wind in the second half.
The second half was a more solid display from the visiting side, but with both defenses staying largely solid, neither side ever really threatened to break free. Some strong running from the Toon forwards was not enough to ever really challenge Carrick’s solid defense, and any attempts to play wide were snuffed out by a good blitz in the midfield. And with Carrick very good at picking up on any isolated runner to force a turnover, most of the play remained in the Ballymoney half.
The only score of the second half came from Carrick, when, after a turnover, they used a few phases of possession to draw in the defenders, leaving a three two situation on the right wing, which they executed well to score in the corner.
All in all, a frustrating day for the Ballymoney coaching team - with some good signs in the second half.