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Graham positive as Ballymena aim to return at the first attempt

Ballymena have lost a number of key players following their relegation to Division 2A of the All-Ireland League - but that has not dampened their enthusiasm to return to the upper echelons of Irish rugby
Ballymena have lost a number of key players following their relegation to Division 2A of the All-Ireland League - but that has not dampened their enthusiasm to return to the upper echelons of Irish rugby

By Ronnie Ingram

Ballymena have lost a number of key players following their relegation to Division 2A of the All-Ireland League - but that has not dampened their enthusiasm to return to the upper echelons of Irish rugby.

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They will now have the opportunity to field a settled team week after week instead of suddenly losing five or six players to Ulster on the Thursday before a vital game.

Coach Andy Graham said: "It was difficult to field a settled side but now the squad will be working together all the time and that allows us to consolidate, build team spirit and keep it during the campaign.

"We have only played one competitive game against Queen's (13-17) and, although we were without a number of regulars, I felt we were not far off the pace.

"We started slowly, gave away a soft try but came back strongly, and have learned a lesson before this weekend's league game at Banbridge."

Ballymena will be without the injured Timmy Small, who has been in excellent kicking form, so Glenn Bailie will be at out-half and Michael Stronge at No.9.

Ali Burke returns, Fijian Ika Vekione, who excelled for the seconds, is given his chance, and it is hoped that JJ McKee will be released from Ulster A duty.

Ian Caldwell has shown a new lease of life as he brings all his experience to the second-row, and a number of youngsters, including Dalriada's Nathan Phillipson and Cambridge House's Kane McIlroy, will be given their chance to show their skills.

"They have a younger pack that will be well drilled and a strong backline including Andy Morrison," concluded Graham.

Rainey, who surprisingly beat Ballynahinch, are at home to Queen's, while Malone entertain Hinch. Division 2 joint leaders City of Armagh and Omagh meet, while Dungannon entertain Belfast Harlequins and City of Derry travel to Bangor.

Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup first round: Ards v City of Armagh II, Ballymena II v CIYMS, Ballymoney v Lisburn, Ballynahinch II v Clogher Valley, Banbridge II v Larne, Donaghadee v Enniskillen, Limavady v Cooke, Randalstown v Coleraine. Holders Dromore, Ballyclare, Grosvenor, Instonians, Carrickfergus, Malone II, Omagh II and Portadown have byes.

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