Banbridge picked up the win they needed to ensure a home draw in the promotion play-offs.
But they had to battle for the full 80 minutes against a Malone side whose performance belied the fact that they had nothing to play for, given their mid-table position.
A score in the first two minutes gave the home side the start they needed, but coach Daniel Soper reflected after the game that it might in fact have worked against them.
“Sometimes when you score early like that you take your foot off the gas and lose your concentration,” he said.
“The conditions weren’t conducive to great rugby but that’s not an excuse – we just didn’t play particularly well. The first half was pretty disappointing. Our kicking was poor and we didn’t exit out of our own area particularly well and put ourselves under a lot of pressure.
“In the second half we did what we had to do. We had the better of the territory and possession and I thought that the forwards worked very, very hard to get us the result.
“It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done,” he said.
When Andrew Morrison sliced open Malone’s midfield defence to set up the 2nd minute unconverted try for John Porter it looked as if Bann might be set for a bonus point win.
But the Belfast side came back strongly to set up camp in and around Bann’s “22”.
A neat chip behind the defence saw left winger Andy Bryans win the race to touch down for the equalising try in the 13th minute. And the same player intercepted when Bann were trying to play their way out of their own half, sprinting the 35 metres to claim his second unconverted try.
Bann rallied briefly towards the end of the half but were unable to capitalise on good field position and the visitors were good value for their 5-10 interval lead.
The home side held the upper hand for much of the second half. Ten minutes in Shandon Scott converted a penalty from in front of the posts after his pack had applied steady pressure on the visitors’ line.
Josh Cromie’s darting runs were testing the Malone defence to the limit and Bann were held up over the line to win a five metre scrum.
Another penalty award was reversed on the intervention of the touch judge but when the clearance kick failed to make touch Bann resumed on the attack, winning a penalty for Scott to kick his side into a single point lead in the 64th minute.
Cromie’s neat inside pass took Chris Allen deep inside the Malone “22” and Dale Carson was held up over the line.
The pressure was unrelenting and from a five metre lineout the Bann forwards repeatedly thrust for the line with Carson eventually breaking through for the try to take his side six points clear.
There were some nervous moments in the Bann ranks in the final minutes as Malone fought their way back into the home “22” but Bann held out to claim the all-important win.
Soper and his squad now prepare for the visit of UCC on 23rd April in the semi-final of the promotion play-offs.
He emphasized how important Saturday’s win had been in securing the home draw. “Our home performances have been outstanding this year and we’ll take a lot of confidence from that.
“The results in the two games we’ve played against them have gone to the home side. But I know that UCC came to Rifle Park in January expecting to win and go top of the league and were very disappointed that they didn’t.
“We produced one of our best performances of the season that day and I know that we’ll have to do the same again if we’re to go on and contest the final.”
Ballynahinch Thirds 51 Bann Thirds 0
Bann Thirds failed to claim cup glory in Easter Tuesday’s final of the Crawford Cup, conceding eight tries to a Ballynahinch side that had just too much firepower outside the scrum.
Already weakened by the loss of centre Geoff Thompson due to a hamstring injury, Bann were further handicapped by the referee’s decision, taken in spite of a ruling by the Ulster Branch, to apply U-19 scrummaging laws.
Bann had an undoubted edge at the set piece, and Bann coach Andrew Craig felt aggrieved. “I know it wouldn’t have affected the outcome as ‘Hinch had just too much pace in their threequarters. But had we been allowed to make full use of our scrummaging power it would have been a very different contest.”
“Our pack had already shown what they could do in previous rounds, with a penalty try in the semi-final against Ballymoney underlining our strength in that area. And we had a number of five-metre scrums in the final where we could have picked up scores had the referee not taken that decision. That would certainly have produced a scoreline that more fairly reflected the respective strengths of the sides.
“I certainly can’t fault the lads for the effort they put in but in the end we had to accept that we were beaten by a better team.”
An early breakaway try by the nippy ‘Hinch scrum-half set the favourites up and they went on to make full use of their threequarters as the Bann backs, missing the organisational management of the injured Thompson, struggled to cope.
The forwards battled hard for the 80 minutes, with No 8 Andrew Davidson and flanker Andy Brown prominent throughout. And prop Barney McKevitt’s non-stop efforts and total commitment to the cause deservedly earned him the losers’ man-of-the-match accolade.
In the backs Calum Boland and Adam Stirling put in try-saving tackles but couldn’t stem the tide of ‘Hinch attacks. It was a disappointing outcome for the many Bann supporters who had travelled to the Kingspan and for a side that had produced a series of sterling performances in the previous rounds to claim their place in the showpiece final.