Students on course for unbeaten league campaign

UCD 40 – 24 Ballymena

Collidge are aiming for a perfect season, and with only four games to go, that dream is fast becoming a reality, reports Gordon O’Callaghan

UCD has continued its impressive unbeaten run with a comprehensive victory over Ballymena on February 26th. While not enjoying possession for most of the game, the team’s sturdiness and creativity limited Ballymena in their attempt to convert tries.

UCD’s gameplan from the beginning was to trust in their defence and soak up the Ballymena pressure, waiting patiently for the opportunity to counter-attack. This plan worked brilliantly in the first half with Ballymena enjoying supremacy in both possession and territory. The supremacy was so pronounced that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the only time UCD gained possession and territory, they scored.

The first of these scores came through left-wing Tom Fletcher. UCD managed to turn the ball over inside their own 22, out-half Niall Earls kicked ahead for Fletcher to chase, the winger’s superior pace showed as he beat the covering full back to the ball, collecting to go over in the corner. Earls added the extras to make 7-0.

One of the criticisms aimed at UCD this season has been their lack of concentration after scoring. However, they seemed to remedy that problem as they continued to soak up everything that Ballymena had to throw at them.

UCD’s second try again came from a counter-attack, as this time right-winger Terry Jones intercepted a loose pass from Ballymena fly-half Martin Irwin on the opposition ten-metre line to cross over on the right. Earls failed with his second attempt and the score remained 12-0.

The Students were the definition of clinical. With minimal possession and practically no territory, they had managed to score two tries. Ballymena began to panic and their decision-making suffered, choosing to kick for the corner when they should have gone for goal. These poor decisions were down to UCD challenging and disrupting the Ballymena lineout throughout the pitch.

Collidge inflicted further misery on the visitors when they again manage to turn over the ball in the middle of the park. Earls, realising that his wingers had the defence beaten for pace, choose to chip ahead. Fletcher collected and crossed for his second of the game. He then added the extras to make it 19-0.

The UCD defence had put in a memorable first-half display and made a huge number of tackles that were clearly taking their toll. Fatigue started to set in and – despite showing a complete lack of invention throughout the game – the visitors eventually crossed the try line. Martin Irwin added the extras to make the half time score 19-7.

With the wind favouring Ballymena in the second half, the Students decided to change their gameplan and put greater focus on possession and territory. The benefits were seen within three minutes as full-back Michael Twomey crossed the line after a superb break from the base of the ruck by scrum-half Rob Shanley. This secured the bonus point for Collidge and with Earls adding the two points, UCD were out of sight at 26-7.

The Students continued to have a certain amount of possession, although they did not enjoy the same level as their opponents. With this dominance, however, came the mistakes and UCD wasted a few scoring opportunities before Niall Earls added a penalty to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

Luckily, the hosts were not be denied for long as flanker Shane Grannell picked from the base of a scrum and barged his way over the line for his side’s fifth try. Earls made it four from six with the conversion.

Ballymena reacted well, though, as the UCD defence switched off, perhaps allowing old errors to creep in, and outside centre Ali Fraser broke the defensive line to cross over. Irwin rushed his kick and paid the price, as it went sailing wide.

Captain Andrew Cummiskey led his team on a counter charge by crossing the gain line to feed second-row Mark Flanagan, who showed a good step and avoided three defenders to touch down. Earls made it 40-12.

UCD faded in the last quarter and the combination of fatigue and substitutions saw them ship late tries to Ballymena’s flanker Andrew Kerr and full-back Roger McBurney.

Despite the late slump, the Students can be proud of their performance and remain on track for an unbeaten league season. Their next fixture sees them travel to Corinthians – who currently lie in sixth place on the league table and 18 points behind leaders UCD – on March 5th.