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The Ballynahinch club have always been convivial hosts, and they threw a great spread for their Christmas lunch last Saturday.

The occasion was the visit of Lansdowne for the last Division 1A match of the Energia Ireland-sponsored AIL in 2021 and the Christmas fare served up was first-class as the hosts entertained their visitors regally.

It was a pity in some respects, therefore, that Lansdowne ultimately turned out to be party-poopers, or at least were guilty of not letting their team in on the hospitality secret. With 77 minutes played, it looked as if the Festive occasion would be marked by a well-merited draw, 10-10, and two league points apiece.

It was then that the difference between the top of the League and the bottom, while not all that wide, was ruthlessly exposed by the visitors. Having won a Lansdowne penalty-line out in their own ’22, the home side kicked into mid-field, where the ball was gathered by the visitors.

Scrum half Cormac Foley made good ground back into the home ’22 before the ball was quickly rucked and spun right for replacement hooker Jamie Kavanagh to plunge over and break the deadlock, to the stunned anguish of the home support. Out half Peter Hastie added the extras for a 17-10 lead to Lansdowne and the deadlock was broken.

Desperate to at least regain the two points they had seemed to be assured of, Ballynahinch made that all too often fatal mistake of forcing the play on the restart. The result was a coughed-up pass on half-way that was eagerly latched on to by left winger Michael Silvester, and the speedy winger was never going to be caught.

Hastie’s conversion in front of the posts pushed Lansdowne into what was a quite flattering 24-10 lead while the disappointment of the home hosts was palpable.

If a last-gasp win was the outcome, for long periods of the first half it looked as if the visitors would take the points handily enough. Without inspirational second row Jack Dwan (injury) and out half Charlie Tector (exam), even playing into a strong breeze (is there any other type in Ballynahinch’s mountain fortress), Lansdowne dominated possession and always looked comfortable.

An early penalty from home full back Greg Hutley (who scored all of his sides 10 points) put the ‘Hinch ahead, and even if it took until the 36th minute for Lansdowne to draw level through a Stephen Madigan penalty, with a dominant scrum (yielding three penalties) and some reasonable line-out possession, the Headquarters side seemed well set for the second half.

This feeling of expectancy among the visiting support seemed well-founded when, in first half injury time and following a late tackle on winger Sean Galvin and a subsequent penalty line-out, several forceful drives culminated in former Ballynahinch player, No. 6 Clive Ross, crossing for a try close in.

The successful conversion by full back Madigan thus sent the visitors into the break with a 10-points to 3 lead and the expectation of building on that platform to “up the ante” in the second period.

Instead, it was a rejuvenated home side that seized the initiative after the break as the expected Lansdowne fuse failed to ignite.

The visitors began to lose the vital collisions as a fired-up home pack raised their game. In the 49th minute, a lovely break up the middle by Ballinahinch scrum half Conor McAuley saw the number 9 appear twice in a lovely movement before he gave the scoring pass to supporting full back, Hutley.

Hutley nailed the convert into the wind, and suddenly we had a game on our hands at 10-all.

It would be nice to be able to report that both sides played some great rugby in the subsequent exchanges, but in truth it became a largely scrappy affair.

Lansdowne were guilty of not protecting hard-won possession and conceded too many turn-overs, including a penalty when they appeared to have the home line at their mercy in the 58th minute. The backs needed to control play better territorially but were disrupted by the loss of centre Corey Reid through injury and only played in fits and starts during the second half, in particular.

Captain Jack O’Sullivan made a welcome return to action and was largely instrumental in raising his side for one last-gasp effort when the match appeared to be sliding into what would have been a disappointing draw for the visitors.

It is a measure of the character of the squad that ultimately they were able to respond to the challenge on what is quite a bogey ground for them and prove at the end why they are one of the leading contenders for honours this season.

So, now to the winter break in the AIL and the cessation of hostilities until we play the reverse fixtures. These  commence with the return of Saturday’s visitors, Ballynahinch, to Lansdowne Road on the 15th of January 2022, Covid-willing.

Before that, however, Lansdowne have a most important fixture – a Bateman Cup away semi-final against City of Armagh on January the 8th. The squad would really appreciate your support in this historic fixture, so apply for planning permission to travel now!

Finally, may I take this opportunity to thank everyone for the positive feedback received for these match reports, which is much appreciated, and to wish you all a Very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.

Match report: Michael Daly

Match Details: ENERGIA MEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE, ROUND 9: DIVISION 1A:

BALLYNAHINCH 10 LANSDOWNE 24,Ballymacarn Park

Scorers: Ballynahinch: Try: Greg Hutley; Con: Greg Hutley; Pen: Greg Hutley

Lansdowne: Tries: Clive Ross, Jamie Kavanagh, Michael Silvester; Cons: Peter Hastie 2, Stephen Madigan 1; Pen: Stephen Madigan

HT: Ballynahinch 3 Lansdowne 10.

BALLYNAHINCH: Greg Hutley; Rhys Patterson, Tagen Strydom, Ryan Wilson, Aaron Cairns; Jack Milligan, Conor McAuley; Nacho Cladera Crespo, Josh Hanlon, Kyle McCall, Thomas Donan, John Donnan, Bradley Luney, Oli Loughead, Callum Irvine.

Replacements: Ben Cullen, Peter Cooper, Tom Martin, Diego Vidal Souza, Chris Gibson, Paddy Wright.

LANSDOWNE: Stephen Madigan; Sean Galvin, Andy Marks, Corey Reid, Michael Silvester; Peter Hastie, Cormac Foley; Frank Kavanagh, Luke Thompson, Greg McGrath, Joey Szpara, Dan Murphy, Clive Ross, Jack O’Sullivan (capt), Mark Boyle.

Replacements: Jamie Kavanagh, Ben Popplewell, , Jack Matthews, Sam Prendergast, Ruairi Clarke.

Referee: Jonny Erskine

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