By Michael Gallagher
Ballina RFC’s dream of gaining promotion to the All Ireland League is hanging by a thread after Saturday afternoon’s defeat at the hands of Omagh in Heffernan Park.
The absolute devastation at the final whistle said a lot about the ambition of the team and the club but a different perspective and ambition will soon be rekindled.
Both sides knew that victory would keep them firmly in the running for promotion to the national league, so the stakes were very high.
Ballina went into the game without their two talented second-rows Richard Morrow and Sam Liebezeit, who both picked up injuries in last week’s clash in Clonmel, and they were missed.
The home side began with the weak wind on their backs, playing towards The Quay, and hit the front within a minute. A lineout on the left was the platform for a scorching move to be launched through the middle and when Calum Quinn evaded three tackles and found Ciaran Rouse on his shoulder the latter squeezed over for a fine try.
Darragh Whyte added the conversion and Ballina were off and running.
Omagh were stunned by the setback and took time to settle. Their handling was poor; their link-up play was worse and they were struggling in the lineout. Ballina were on the front foot with Conor Mason to the fore as Mickey Murphy and Quinn looked to unlock the guests for another try. Gary Kavanagh, Richard Kelly, Fergal Tully and Andrew West were also catching the eye but Chris O’Neill’s running from full-back was the most impressive aspect of the home armoury.
The pressure paid off and after 12 minutes Ballina were awarded a penalty on the left. Unfortunately, Darragh Whyte’s effort came back off the post and Omagh survived.
Three minutes later, Ballina were hit by a hammer-blow when O’Neill had to leave the field with a rib injury. Whyte went to full-back with Alex Corduff coming in on the wing, but the hosts were rattled for a few minutes and Omagh drove forward.
The Ulster men threatened the home line and were awarded a penalty after 25 minutes which brought them back into it, 7-3.
That boosted the guests but Ballina soaked up pressure and responded. They drove down the pitch and camped on the Omagh line. It looked like the men in green would get their second try in the right corner but they couldn’t find the extra inches required and there was no addition to the scores before half-time. That failure to get into double figures would prove pivotal in the end as the sun-splashed crowd enjoyed the fare on offer.
The second period saw Omagh take the initiative and, in truth, they were the better team during the last 40 minutes.
The decisions started to go Omagh’s way in the scrums and the ‘Accies’ got a whiff of victory. Their big second rows Johhnie Sproule and Jamie Sproule took on the home side around the fringes and the back line looked dangerous whenever it was moved wide.
Ballina had a number of close shaves as the visitors looked for the lead but eventually the dam broke midway through the half when Johnny Sproule crashed over and the added conversion made it 10-7 to the Ulster side.
Ballina tried manfully to get back into contention but the home side couldn’t spend enough time in the Omagh half to build phases as the tackling of the Ulster men and their line-speed made it more and more difficult.
The home boys tried everything to locate an avenue to the Omagh line but found very little room in which to operate. Some handling errors also militated against a comeback and when Mervyn Edgar danced over for a try five minutes from the end, it was all over.
Ballina never threw in the towel and a darting run from Quinn with Brunker on his shoulder almost got a consolation try but it wasn’t to be and Omagh deservedly went home with the spoils.
Defeat might have been our lot today, but this was a memorable day for the communities around the Moy. The crowd in Heffernan Park was huge; the atmosphere was electric; the support was eternal and the facilities looked resplendent.
It gave us all a glimpse of the future and it’s a future which we will continue to move towards by improving and developing every aspect of Ballina RFC.
A special thanks to the mighty supporters who turned out in huge numbers today and made it a memorable and historic afternoon.
Finally, a massive thank you from everyone in the club to the fine men who fill the jerseys and their dedicated and hard-working management and support staff.
Ballina: Paul Newell, Richard Kelly, Gary Kavanagh, Andrew West, Fergal Tully, Conor Mason, Danial Molloy, Aiden McNulty, Michael Murphy, Calum Quinn, David Brunker, Michael Allen, Ciaran Rouse, Darragh Whyte, Chris O’Neill, Luke Sweeney, Shane Clarke, Laurence Leonard, Henry Hewson, Alex Corduff, John Keaveney