(In Castle Grounds, Monivea)
Monivea were crowned league champions once again and presented with the trophy last Sunday, but on the day it was Ballina who won the match, scoring four tries and earning a bonus point in the process. It was a significant win for the North Mayo side who haven’t beaten Monivea since 2007, although they have come very close on both of the previous ocassions they have played them this season. It was an exciting and entertaining game with each side scoring four tries and a nail biting finish, when the game could once again have been snatched from the grasp of the Mayo men, but in the end it was they who prevailed on the day. Both teams were very focused on playing attacking rugby and early on Ballina’s defense forced errors from their hosts that the visitors seized upon and quickly exploited with direct and intense attacking play. Alex Lee and Jerome Harrimate made some outstanding tackles for Ballina which forced turnovers and knock ons, and when they did wing forwards Orrie Collins and Phillip Timoney always seemed to be there to secure possession and initiate the counter attacks. The first try of the game came from one such turnover and it was Orrie Collins who seized the ball and powered forward, offloading to Michael Murphy, who inturn found Jerome Harrimate and David Brunker in support. Brunker stepped inside and linked up with Mark Healy who drove forward before the ball was fed out to Paul Newell, who took it on and set up the ruck.

It looked like the scrambling Monivea defense had gotten back and reorganized themselves, and maybe that the chance was lost for Ballina but when the ball came back and was passed out to Sam Johnson the Ballina out half put in a sublime cross field kick which winger Francis Conroy raced onto, caught and ran in for a spectacular try without breaking his stride. Sam Johnson’s conversion attempt drifted wide so Ballina led 5-0. Within minutes Monivea had equalised. Ballina gathered the restart and moved the ball wide once again making good ground and putting together another promising attack, but this time it was Ballina who spilled the ball and Monivea fullback Geared O’Connor fly kicked the ball down the field before any of the Ballina players reacted. With the chase back to the ball on O’Connor showed great pace to get to the ball and kick it on further and then just yards from between the posts he kicked it again but miss hit this effort that the ball stopped just in front of the left corner flag. Ballina try scorer Francis Conroy was the first to the ball but under pressure from Monivea the ball was turned over and prop Damien McNeilus got over for a try in the corner. From the difficult angle O’Connor was unable to add the conversion so it was 5-5. If Monivea’s response was swift so also was Ballina’s. From the restart they forced a turnover and secured the ball, initiating another attack that eventually broke down with a knock on and a scrum to Monivea five metres from their line. But Ballina’s set piece was dominant at this period of the game and the pressure exerted by the visitors pack and scrum half Michael Murphy’s tenacity resulted in the Ballina Captain robbing his opposite number Daren Blade of the ball and charging for the line. He was prevented from grounding the ball, but the ball was recycled quickly and passed out to second row Connor Forde who couldn’t be prevented from crashing over to restore Ballina’s lead. Johnson was unable to add the conversion so the score was now 10-5. Within four minutes Monivea had the lead for the first time in the match. It came after a good build up by the Galway men with Kevin Higgins prominent before winger Brain McDonagh cut through the Ballina defence leaving several would be tacklers in his wake before offloading to second row Shane McHugh who touched down for the try. O’Connor made no mistake with the conversion, so his side led 12-10. Ballina didn’t panic however, and continued in their task with renewed competitivness. center Michael Allen made a good break for Ballina but Monivea recovered and got an important tackle in on him when a three v two seemed on for the Mayo side. Ballina’s scrum was still on top however and it was the set pieces from the forwards that delivered the next try. First Monivea were penalised in a scrum and Ballina kicked down the line for a lineout inside the Monivea 22.

Hooker Richard Kelly found Connor Forde and Ballina set up a driving maul which flew forward and over the line with Kelly touching down for Ballina’s third try. Michael Murphy attempted the conversion but missed so Ballina now led 15-12, which remained the score until half time. Ballina started the second half brightly and again won a penalty in the scrum which allowed Michael Murphy to attempt to kick for three points but again his effort was wide. The pressure remained on Monivea however and from another scrum in Monivea’s half number 8 Aiden McNulty picked the ball and made good ground before passing on to Murphy who fed Johnson who in turn passed to Connor Dever who had replaced the injured Andy Moynihan at fullback. Dever timed his run very well and showed great pace and a fine side step as he raced in untouched to score Ballina’s fourth try securing the bonus point. Again the conversion was missed so the score was now 20-12. Ballina introduced fresh legs with Cory Brown coming on at out half, moving Johnson to the wing replacing David Brunker. Brown had soon an attempt on goal as Monivea were penalised for handling the ball in a ruck but his attempt drifted wide. He soon had another opportunity when Monivea were again penalised after good Ballina defence had isolated a Monivea player in possession and dissent from the home side meant that the penalty was brought forward within Brown’s range. He struck the kick very well and it sailed over to stretch Ballina’s lead to 23-12. This left Ballina in a commanding position and it was reasonable to expect them to control the game and see the match out relatively comfortably from this position. But Monivea have been unbeaten in the league all season up to last Sunday’s game and they weren’t about to relinquish that record easily in front of their home support.

A deciding factor was that they were now the dominant scrummaging side as Alex Lee picked up a shoulder injury which had a big effect on the Ballina eights efforts. Ciaran Melvin had come on for Paul Newell at loosehead and eventualy Newell had to be reintroduced at tighthead for the departing Lee. The tide of penaltys flowed Monivea’s way now and within ten minutes they scored two trys; one by finished off well by winger Caloin Blade after some good handling and running by Kevin Higgins and the other by center Seamus Fahy after some excellent quick ruck ball provided the platform and Ballina’s defence was slow to organise. Neither score was converted so crucially Ballina now lead by a solitary point 23-22. They appeared in control and unpacked however as the clock ran down but a dropped pass inside their half and a penalty for Monivea from the resulting scrum just outside the 10 metre line and in front of the posts gave Gerard O’Connor the opportunity to snatch victory in the final minutes. There was high drama as his effort was awry but hit the base of the post. Ballina full back Conor Dever gathered the ball but his attempted kick down field was blocked and Ballina had to secure the ball again with a ruck on their line before the ball was despatched and the final whistle sounded. This victory may not secure any trophy for Ballina but it should give them great confidence in the Cawley  Cup and plate competitions as they have proven without doubt that they can beat the very best teams in Connacht when they produce their best game. Next Sunday Ballina host Loughrea at home in a refixed league match.

MONIVEA; Gerard O’Connor, Caloin Blade, Brien McDonagh, John Culkin, Kevin Higgins, Seamus Fahy, Daren Blade, Damien McNeilus, Steven Joyce, Ronan Caughlin, Vinny Lally, Shane McHugh, Dara Maher, David Madden, Pat Fitzmaurice, Eoin Rooney, Mike Ward, Bernie Ryan, Paddy Devaney, Colm Neary.

BALLINA; Andrew Moynihan, David Brunker, Jerome Harrimate, Michael Allen, Francis Conroy, Samuel Johnson, Michael Murphy (C), Paul Newell, Richard Kelly, Alex Lee, Connor Forde, Markjoesph Healy, Orrie Collins, Phillip Timoney, Aiden McNulty, John Keaveney, Ciaran Melvin, Stephen Dolan, Cory Brown, Conor Dever.
REFEREE; Kieran White.


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