It would have been a major shock and for a brief period in the final ten minutes Ballyshannon began to dream as they cut the deficit to five points, but it was not to be as Ards finished the tie with a late try.
Ards 4ths 17
When you consider that the visitors could field with two Heineken Cup winners in their ranks and Ballyshannon were without two of their most experienced back-row forwards, James O’Donnell and David Tyrell, the final scoreline showed just how well the home side competed.
The Heineken Cup medal holders were Rab Brady and Andy Matchett, prop and scrum half respectively when Ulster triumphed in 1999. Both were very much to the fore as the experienced Ards side controlled this game at the Lakeside for much of the game.
The absence of O’Donnell and Tyrell was felt early on as Ards took control in the tight from the first whistle and they had points on the board by the 8th minute when after a concerted drive it was Rab Brady who touched down after his forward colleagues had driven for 20 metres. The conversion was missed, but within five minutes the margin was out to 12 points as centre Geordie McBride found a soft centre in the Ballyshannon defence and broke clear at ease to touch under the posts.
This try was converted by Andy Machett and it looked like it would be a long afternoon for the ‘Shannon boys.
But credit to them, they never threw in the towel. They almost lost Daire
Keown who seemed to have been laid out with a high tackle that went unpunished on 15 minutes. Keown seemed to be out cold for a few seconds but recovered to put in a very impressive shift at full-back, tidying up time after time as Ards looked to put pressure on him.
The home side did, however, suffer a huge blow in the second quarter when on one of their best attacking moves, outhalf Mark Rooney dislocated a kneecap as ‘Shannon were within yards of the Ards line. There was a lengthy stoppage before Rooney was moved outside the playing area and was almost immediately removed to hospital by ambulance.
Despite their best efforts ‘Shannon could not create anything of any significance and the margin remained at 12-0 at the break.
The second half saw Ballyshannon continue to probe without making any real indent to a very physical and experienced Ards side, while the visitors seemed content to keep the gap at 12-0. There were a number of stoppages for injuries which broke up the game and this along with the difficult handling conditions due to the first half rain, made it difficult for the home side to make any headway.
But then with 12 minutes left, scrum half Paul Connolly found the key to unlock the Ards defence as he darted through the middle and found Richard Gallagher in support. The ball was worked to Anthony ‘Gandhi’ Boyle on the burst and he broke through the Ards defence to touch down under the posts for a magnificent score.
The same player added the extra points and ‘Shannon were just five points adrift - 12-7.
But any dreams of advancing were shattered with four minutes left when the bulky Ards pack powered their way to the ‘Shannon line and No. 8 Andy Crozier emerged from the ruck after the referee had signalled a try.
There was to be no dream ending, but Ballyshannon can now concentrate on the league, which they lead by four points. They have six games left and coach Raymond Gallagher knows that they have their destiny in their own hands.
Ballyshannon: Paul Cassidy, Alan Prendergast, David Hoey, Brian Killilea, Darren Gillespie, Richard Gallagher, Dominic Gillespie, Anthony Coughlin, Paul Connolly, Mark Rooney, Dermot Connolly, John Treacy, Anthony Boyle, Damien Cleary, Daire Keown. Replacements: Raymond Gallagher for Rooney; Daniel Grimes for Killilea; Killian McNulty for Dermot Connolly.
Ards: Geoff Garrett, Steve Nutt, Rab Irwin, Phil Gill, Gary Bresho; Graham Hill, Michael Higginson, Andy Crozier, Andy Matchett, Stevie Bell, Trevor Spence, Geordie McBride, Andy Todd, JD Gamble, Cyril Stocker. Replacements: Andy Fletcher for Gill; Gareth Ryder.
Referee: Peter O’Hanlon (Cavan)