Ballymena's hunger is not satisfied despite Forster Cup joy
Ballymena V clinched the Forster Cup for the third successive season with a 20-3 win over a gallant Randalstown II, and have now turned their attentions to retaining the Harden Cup for a final time.
The Harden Cup, which has been a knock-out competition between the winners of the six Junior Divisions, will in future be automatically awarded to the winners of Division 1. Ballymena V play in Junior 5.
The Braidmen had too many experienced and knowledgeable players for their younger opponents but the Neilsbrook Park team, who finished undefeated in Junior 4, have shown that they will go on to better things.
They had their opportunities in the opening 40 minutes with Matty Turner very assured at out-half. Winger Ryan McGarry broke away and looked like scoring but was just caught by Jason McKeown a few yards in front of the posts.
A penalty ensued and Conor Murray was on target. Ballymena then had to defend after two yellow cards were shown but they withstood the pressure before Randalstown also had a player binned just before the interval.
At the start of the second period, with the opposition still reduced to 14 players, an up and under from Ballymena out-half Rory Drysdale bounced favourably for centre Michael Smith to cross and McKeown to goal.
The Eaton Park team started to control the game and two Drysdale penalties put them 13-3 in front.
They had utilised their bench and re-jigged the pack and were the better team in the final 10 minutes. Another high kick from Drysdale was kicked on by Kevin Doherty and he ran in from around halfway to go under the posts for the out-half to convert.
Ballymena manager Peter Crabbe, who was a member of the side for more than 20 seasons, said: "We had the wind in our favour in the second half and used it to our advantage.
"Randalstown gave us a really tough game and I thought Kevin Doherty and Davy Gaston were our outstanding players. We are in the quarter-finals of the Harden Cup so hopefully have a few games left to play.
"We have another difficult assignment at Junior 1 winners Ballynahinch III on Saturday and in theory we could meet Randalstown again in the final."
Gregor Sloan, the Randalstown manager, was disappointed with the result which he thought flattered Ballymena. He had nothing but praise for the performance of his young charges.
"The game came down to experience over youth," he said. "We can take heart from a great effort on the Kingspan pitch and while we did not win, there will be opportunities in years to come and this team have many playing years ahead of them. We now travel to Malone III in the Harden Cup on Saturday."
The penultimate game in this season's Ulster Senior League takes place at Hatrick Park this evening when Rainey entertain Belfast Harlequins.
Both teams are presently lying joint seventh. The title decider is on Saturday when Ballynahinch need to defeat City of Derry at Ballymacarn Park to retain the championship or else Armagh will be crowned champions.