CITY of Derry’s First Trust Senior Cup hopes ended for another year, when they lost 19-12 at Ballymena, in Saturday’s semi-final clash.
The Judges Road men went into the tie full of confidence, however some questionable refereeing and the dismissal of wing forward Chris Cooper meant the home side secured a 19-12 success.
Derry started with intent on a dry, cold day. Veteran Bob McKillop, making his first start for some time, was at the forefront of many strong plays that took play inside the Ballymena 22’. The Derry scrum was dominant with Chris Shields, Cathal Cregan and Gareth Beattie enjoying the upper hand and ably supported by McKillop and Brian Prue.
The influential McKillop set up Cooper on seven minutes to almost provide the visitors with the perfect start but the wing-forward was stopped agonisingly short of the Ballymena line. The first of a series of setbacks for Nicholl and his Judges Road team came on 12 minutes when Beattie picked up an injury after a scrum collapsed and was forced off, replaced by Paul McFeely.
Ballymena got themselves into the Derry half via a couple of penalty decisions at the tackle area following decent play from Johnny Burns, Simon Shaw and Ian Caldwell. Scrum-half Ian Vance was always lively for Ballymena and when a Derry player strayed offside after tackling him 35 metres out with 18 minutes on the clock, out-half Martin Irwin converted the penalty to give Ballymena a 3-0 lead.
The game was becoming littered with penalties and injury stoppages, neither team able to mount any sustained periods of pressure. Despite this, Irwin kicked another 30 metre penalty after 31 minutes following another offside decision at the breakdown out and Ballymena were in front by six.
The semi-final was turned on its head as it entered first half injury time with Cooper red carded which was followed by two further yellows in quick succession. First, Stephen Corr went to the ‘bin’ on 43 minutes to leave City of Derry struggling with 13 men but there was very little rugby of any quality being played as injury time dragged on. Ballymena’s Vance was next to receive a yellow card six minutes into injury time and when the referee finally blew the half time whistle on 50 minutes it was a relief to players and supporters alike with Ballymena leading 6-0.
The second half started with a score but not the kind Nicholl or his team was hoping for. Derry kicked off but some neat handling and interplay from Johnny Burns, Darrell Mulholland, Peter Budina and Tim Small allowed centre Alan Smith to get in for an excellent try. With Irwin converting, Ballymena’s lead was 13-0.
Derry, despite reduced numbers, showed real commitment and courage, ably led by McKillop who was always to the forefront as he carried ball forward supported by Tom Patton, Richard Peoples, Ryan Campbell, Sam McAuley and Chris Barber.
Despite Derry’s determination though, it was Ballymena who increased their lead on 52 minutes when Andrew Warwick, Connor Smith, David Whann and Caldwell made the hard yards before Derry infringed and Irwin kicked an easy penalty to have the Bannsiders leading by 16-0.
Derry came back strongly, hoping to convert superiority into points and their luck eventually changed on 56 minutes when Ballymena had Connor Smith sent to the bin. Derry kicked into the corner where Brian Prue won the line-out to set-up a series of pick and drives as Bratton, Corr, McAuley and McFeely inched closer to the Ballymena line before Tom Patton found the gap to touch down for an unconverted try.
Derry were almost in for a second try on 70 minutes when Peoples set-up scrum half Andrew Semple to break for the line but the referee deemed he knocked on as he touched down for a try.
Derry fought to the end and gave themselves hope when Stephen Jefferson and David Ferguson working hard before giving winger David Graham the opportunity to make an incisive break down the right wing. He released his hard working full-back William McCleery to sprint in and around behind the post for a try which Semple converted to put Derry right back in the game with 72 minutes gone at 16-12.
Nicholl’s men threw everything forward in their search for that elusive match-winning try but Ballymena defended stoutly and increased their lead on 80 minutes when Irwin kicked a penalty for a 19-12 lead.
The game was up for Derry when Chris Barber was sin binned for a late tackle on three minutes into added time allowing Ballymena to play out injury time and progress to an Ulster Senior Cup Final showdown with Rainey in Ravenhill.
City of Derry: Chris Shields, Cathal Cregan, Gareth Beattie, Bob McKillop Brian Prue, Adam Bratton, Tom Patton, Stephen Corr, Andrew Semple, Richard Peoples, Adam Bratton, Ryan Campbell, Chris Barber, David Graham, William McCleery, Replacements; Sam McAuley, Paul McFeely, Steven Jefferson, David Ferguson.