The First XV came out the better of a 6-3 score line when they took on Ballymena Seconds at Rugby Avenue on Saturday. It was a hard fought encounter, both sides also having to contend with cold and showery weather.
In a bruising and at times ill-tempered match, largely contested in the centre of the park, at the end the players on both teams knew they had given their all. The final score is testament to the defence on both sides and in the final analysis perhaps the better discipline of the Coleraine team was the deciding factor.
Coach Richard Kernohan was delighted with the result, but promising to keep his team hard at work. He said: “It was a great win. 6-3 does not sound much but it is just as satisfying as winning by 50 points – maybe more so.
“The spirit is good and the boys believe they have turned the corner. They believe they can beat any team, that they can turn it up and take things to the next level.
“We used all 20 players and they all put in their best effort. Discipline was great and the defence was fantastic.
“The guys are doing it for each other and for the club. They have worked very hard for the last six weeks and they have really committed to training.
“We have set and achieved our targets and now we will set some more in the run up to Christmas. After that we will look again at where we are going and how we will get there.
“What is so satisfying is that the boys are setting the targets themselves – and exceeding them.”
As with all teams there are some people due special mention. Richard revealed that Stephen Dickey had been playing even though he has been carrying an injury. There is also special mention for all the players who have stepped up to, and passed, the mark. Aaron Gaston, Andrew Neely and Alan Stirling have all joined in and made solid impressions.
Richard said: “There is still a lot of competition for places in the squad and there are a number of injured players ready to get back to playing. With so many people hitting form there is great competition for places and a bigger issue for the coaching team is to pick the team each week.
“Today was fantastic. I have never experienced an atmosphere like today’s in any changing room, it was so positive.
“But our next goal is to improve our league position. We want to get back to where we should be. Our focus will be winning both league games before Christmas and heading back towards the top four.”
Team captain Jonny Gault was over the moon with the result on Saturday. He said after the match: “We worked very hard for the win. Everybody bought into it.
“What a great feeling to be going to Ravenhill and the Junior Cup final. We want as many club members and friends as possible to come and support us.
“But first of all we will be focussing on the league and looking for wins there and then we can look for more cup success. After today, all I can say is: Bring them on.”
In the match itself both teams battled the elements, Coleraine having to wait until the second half for a strong wind advantage. Both teams probed but it was to Ballymena with the first scoring opportunity.
A penalty awarded on the half way line after 15 minutes was attempted by Ballymena scrum-half Alan McCluggage, but drifted wide in the gusting wind.
Ten minutes later Ballymena stormed towards the Coleraine line and seemed destined to go over in the corner. An infringement on the ground lead to a penalty and Coleraine cleared their lines.
The pressure continued, Coleraine weathering the storm defensively but finally yielding another penalty opportunity, straight in front of the posts. McCluggage was on target for three points.
With 35 minutes gone Ballymena again attempted to make use of the wind and tried for another penalty from the Coleraine ten-metre line. It was blown well off target.
In the final minutes of the half an off-the-ball incident saw a general melee break out and the referee rewarded this by sending Coleraine’s Stephen Jefferson and Ballymena’s Chris Allen to the sin bin. The half ended with Ballymena maintaining their slender three-nil lead.
In the early stages of the second half David Andrews and Alan Stirling came on for Greg Jordan and Aaron Gaston. Within five minutes Andrews attempted a long range penalty but the shot drifted just wide.
Five minutes later Andrews redeemed the situation with a well struck penalty from 35 metres, to level the scores. Mark Hunter and David Orr replaced Stuart Simpson and Jefferson.
The Coleraine scrum performed strongly throughout the game, both in the set piece and loose play. It was in the loose as Coleraine attacked that Ballymena gave away another penalty, with 35 minutes of the half played, just inside their 22. Andrews was on target and scored the final points of the match. Alex Gourley came on for Andrew Neely.
The match continued with both sides attacking and defending mightily, slogging it out right until the whistle. In the end both sides were exhausted but Coleraine had the elation of a 6-3 victory to lift their spirits.
The win sets up a cup final on December 28 at Ravenhill, when Coleraine face Donaghadee. They got there by virtue of a 26-14 win over Portadown, and as current league leaders they will fancy their chances in the cup.
There are more domestic matters for Coleraine as the final comes just two days after the scheduled league clash with Ballymoney on Boxing Day. At the time of going to print there has been no decision from the Ulster Branch but it seems likely that game will be re-scheduled.
There will still be plenty of action for the two clubs on Boxing Day as the traditional Lennie Robinson Memorial Cup match between the two clubs will still be played at Coleraine, followed by entertainment in the clubhouse.
This weekend, Saturday 10 December, the Firsts return to league action and entertain Academy in a critical game. Coleraine will be aiming to improve their third from the bottom of the league position with a positive performance and as many points as possible. The match kicks off at 2.30pm.
In the other match played at the weekend the score was Coleraine Seconds 20 Ballyclare Seconds 16.
Coleraine First XV: S Jefferson, D Ferguson, A Gaston, R Cochrane, J Gault, R Gibson, A Neely, S Dickey, P Roxborough, G Jordan, J Henderson, T Van Wyk, S Simpson, N Irwin, B Cochrane. Subs: M Hunter, A Stirling, A Gourley, D Andrews, D Orr.