Ballymena came out second best to Armagh at this stage last year but with only one loss this season and at home you’d have to feel they were favourites for this quarter final clash between two of the favourites to lift the Schools cup.
The sleet was slicing across the pitch as Ballymena got us started and Armagh battled back into the wind with a tight game in pods, two or three players with each ball carrier.
Ballymena attempted to suppress any Armagh gains by kicking downfield but the beefy wind dragged the ball beyond the try line several times giving Armagh an easy out.
Armagh clearly had a plan for this half, protecting the ball , keeping possession and after 8 minutes found themselves in the Ballymena 22. Penalised for not rolling away Armagh’s 10, Morrow, had a successful shot at goal and Armagh had the lead.
This was short lived as Ballymena had exactly the same reward after Armagh infringed from the restart . 3-3 at 10 minutes.
Armagh plugged away and though no free flowing rugby was on display they executed their strategy perfectly. An attacking line out set up the maul leading to several rucks before Bothwell touched down under the posts with an easy conversion for his out half. 10-3
Ballymena struck back from the restart and shifted the ball wide and Gocher on the wing scored in the corner after the defence was stretched. The difficult conversion missed and the gap now closed to two points, 10-8.
Another try for Armagh , this time from captain Sam Rainey again under the posts after a succession of forward drives moves Armagh to 17-8.
Ballymena do get another kickable penalty just before half time but the shot is dragged left and the teams break for half time at 17-8.
Again, playing into the wind proves more productive than playing with it as Ballymena blast out of the blocks at the start of the second half with a period of play that sees them hammer Armagh into their own 22.
Wave after wave of energetic attacks particularly from hooker Donald and centre Lawther attempted to break the line but each time Armagh just do enough to repel the marauding home side.
Twice the ball was held up on the line, Armagh were on the ropes, but this squad has character and their captain urged them to maintain their effort and commitment to defend as if their lives depend on it.
Eventually a mistake and Ballymena opt to take the three points. This is a big decision as Armagh were punch drunk and Ballymena should probably have been rewarded from this strong period of pressure with more than 3 points.17-11 halfway through the second half.
It’s only minutes later and we had the same situation with Ballymena taking another three points from a infringement at the breakdown. Now 17-14 it’s a case of could Armagh cling on.
Armagh finally get some possession competing more effectively and in the right area ie not in their own 22. As the clock ticks and the weather suddenly improves both sides tried some moves through the backs but the score remained locked with the difference of 3 points.
One try would decide this match. Ballymena go for one last assault through their powerful winger Gocher but he’s herded into touch just before the try line.
A defensive line out and Armagh’s scrum half, Worth booted the ball into touch. Game over and it’s Armagh who have just done enough surviving a second half barrage to go through to Kingspan for their third semi final in three years. Might it be the Orchard County’s year ?
Richard once again caught up with RSA captain Sam Rainey and coach Chris Parker after the game.