Cooke serve up fighting display
Cooke 32 Ballymena II 7: Cooke showed great character to beat Ballymena II at Shaw's Bridge on Saturday afternoon, despite playing a large period of the second-half with only 13 men.
While two substitutes are permitted in Qualifying 1, with this fixture forming part of the conference league schedule, injuries to Ian Anderson and Scott McClure left the home side in the seemingly farcical situation of having to see out the game two men shy of a full complement.
Before the injuries, tries from player-coach Colin Atkinson, McClure and Scott Finlay had put Cooke in a strong position and, despite one converted try from their opponents in response, a score from Graham Jewhurst and another from Atkinson late on completed the morale-boosting win.
Already without the likes of brothers Alex and Alan Gourley, Richard Finlay, Andrew Quigley and long-term absentee Phil Cartmill, Atkinson praised how his players responded.
"I'm very, very proud of the guys because it seems like every week we're dropping a couple of guys to injuries and it happened again today," said the former Belfast Harlequin.
He continued: "Without any subs it was going to be difficult but we dug deep and showed some real character.
"I know Ballymena were missing a few too but we're threadbare at the minute with having so many guys out, and not just for two or three weeks but serious, season-ending injuries. The thing is that the guys coming in have been down at training every week and know what's happening.
"We've no superstars in our team but a bunch of guys who are going to stick together. We know it's not going to be an easy season with so many new guys coming in but you get rewards if you work hard."
With a strong wind behind their backs at kick-off, Ballymena attempted to assert dominance in the early stages but were met by Cooke resistance.
Aware of the need to secure a first-half advantage, Rory Drysdale saw two ambitious drop goals veer off target, while a line-out steal by Graham Jewhurst thwarted another promising attack.
Those spurned chances ensured it would be Cooke who opened the scoring when, with 27 minutes on the clock, Colin Atkinson broke from deep.
The powerful Atkinson backed himself and was able to break through the last tackle to score a try that was converted by Owen Fearon.
On the cusp of half-time, another lengthy run would prove Ballymena's undoing, this time from Scott McClure, as the wing went over.
The conversion would prove too testing for Fearon on this occasion, leaving the score 12-0 at the turn.
After the break, with the conditions now in their favour, Cooke looked set to make the game safe when a series of strong scrums resulted in young hooker Scott Finlay crossing the whitewash.
However, just three minutes later Anderson was forced from the field after injuring his knee.
A series of pick-and-goes from the forwards produced Ballymena's score five minutes later.
Another penalty from Fearon, one of three players in the Cooke side playing Schools rugby for Sullivan this time last year, with 10 minutes to go however left the visitors needing two converted tries.
Cooke had a chance to make it a three-score game late on, although they lost the opportunity by choosing not to go for the posts from a kickable position.
They did add further gloss to the scoreline when Graham Jewhurst scored at the base of the posts and Atkinson notched his second of the day.