Ballymena enjoyed early Christmas goodwill at Dubarry Park where three gift-wrapped tries helped them to a hard-fought 27-22 All-Ireland League victory over Buccaneers.
This third successive victory by the Braidmen moves them above the Pirates who are now anchored at the bottom of a compacted Division 1B as the AIL takes an end of year break.
Buccs had three changes with Darragh Corbett, Colm Reilly and Michael Hanley all available again in the home backline for Frankie Hopkins, Graham Lynch and Dean McMahon respectively.
The conditions better suited the physically bigger Ulster side in the opening quarter and they forced a five metre scrum at which the home pack collapsed after eight minutes.
Incredibly referee Cillian Hogan saw fit to immediately award a penalty try to Ballymena. Such an unprecedented hasty decision perplexed even the visitors’ mentors and supporters but was perhaps a portent of what was to follow!
A fine angled break by Rory O’Connor stirred the homesters and a great drive by the Buccs forwards earned a 15th minute penalty slotted over by Luke Carty.
They had a let off just a minute later when Reilly’s attempted clearance was blocked down by Connor Smyth while Carty then made a smart intercept to end a Ballymena attack.
As the weather brightened, so did the midlanders’ play and an impressive series of pick and goes saw Reilly held up at the posts literally centimetres from the Ballymena line after 34 minutes.
Buccs continued to press and a slick Carty offload sent Shane Layden surging over for an unconverted try four minutes later, giving the Athlone side a 8-7 half time lead.
Tim Small landed a fortuitous Ballymena penalty three minutes into the second half, when perhaps the award could have gone the way of the hosts.
Six minutes later it got worse for the Pirates as they went through a number of promising phases before Carty’s telegraphed pass on halfway was intercepted by the influential Michael Stronge who raced through for a gift try No.3 under the posts.
Small converted both touchdowns and, with Robert Balacoune putting in a try-saving tackle at the left corner flag on Rory Moloney between these tries, Ballymena looked very comfortable.
Small then added a terrific penalty with 20 minutes remaining to push the northerners 27-8 ahead.
But just two minutes later, teenager Hanley’s neat pass sent Layden powering forward and the Pirates skipper’s angled run took him past a number of Ballymena defenders for an excellent try wide on the left.
Carty’s touchline conversion matched the touchdown and suddenly the Braidmen became anxious with Clive Norris incurring a 70th minute yellow card for a couple of infringements in quick succession. The Shannonsiders now piled forward but a fine spell of pressure was spoiled by a rash grubber kick when patience looked the better option.
Buccs punted the resultant penalty to touch on the right where Simon Meagher won clean lineout possession to send Reilly darting in for a 77th minute try and Carty added the conversion to reduce the arrears to five points.
In a thrilling finish, Layden made another trademark break to link up cleverly with Lynch.
With the cover closing in on the substitute, his off-load to McMahon looked certain to result with a dramatic final move winning try but the referee adjudged the pass forward.
Scrumhalf Stronge was Ballymena’s key player and prop Caldera Crespo put in a Trojan shift in the forwards battle.
Hanley, belying his lack of size and experience, was a worthy recipient of the ‘Audi Athlone Man of the Match’ accolade and captain Layden also shone in the backs division.
Moloney and Martin Staunton led the efforts of a hard-working and spirited home pack.
Buccaneers: C.Boland (G.Lynch 74), R.O’Connor (D.McMahon 50), S.Layden (captain), M.Hanley, D.Corbett, L.Carty, C.Reilly, M.Staunton, J.Sutton, N.Farrelly (L.Winnett 61), P.Claffey, R.Byrne, E.Galvin (T.Rensford 74), R.Moloney, S.Meagher.
Ballymena: R.McBurney, R.Balacoune, M.Norris (J.J.McKee), B.Houston, D.Montgomery, T.Small, M.Stronge, I.Caldera Crespo (A.Ferguson 70), J.Spence (H.Bonnar 50), C.Cundell, D.Whann, C.Smyth, C.Ross, Marcus Rea (captain), Matthew Rea (M.Foster 61).
Referee: Cillian Hogan (IRFU)