Sligo Stutter To Success Over Ballina

Sligo 13 – Ballina 6

Sligo’s recorded a gritty win over local rivals Ballina in a dour, hard-fought encounter at Hamilton Park last Saturday, September 27th. Following Sligo’s impressive opening day victory away to Buccaneers, hopes were high amongst the large home crowd for a similar display against a Ballina team who also had an opening day away win to their name. Sligo made three changes from the squad for the Buccaneers game, hit by the late withdrawal of influential vice-captain David Greene, who failed a pre-match fitness test and who was replaced in the back-row by Jamie Bowes. Andrew Feeney and Joe Sweeney were also recalled to the squad with both on substitute duty. Sligo lost last years corresponding fixture by 6-3 and a similar close encounter was expected.

Sligo began brightly and some early attacks asked questions of the Ballina defence. A good break by lightening fast winger, David Gerrity, led to a Ballina infringement for offside and an early Sligo penalty. Fullback Kakaber Machitidze, who was faultless last week with a 100% display from the boot, took the kick but in a stiff breeze his effort dragged wide. Sligo continued to press and with Sligo’s set pieces again looking solid, they took the game to Ballina but despite their efforts were unable to create any scoring opportunities. The away side made their first foray into Sligo territory on ten minutes when they forced a line-out only five metres out, however Sligo’s tight defence drove them back. Ballina retained possession and an excellent break down the right touchline by their backline saw Sligo winger, Nick Reynolds, make an important tackle and force his opposing number into touch. From this line-out Sligo regrouped and an angled kick from centre Gavin Foley pushed Ballina back to their own 5m line. Sligo’s lineout dominance continued when they forced a Ballina infringement and were rewarded with a penalty 5m out. This was ambitiously kicked to the corner as they sought the games opening try. The lineout was won, but the Sligo drive was held up by a committed Ballina defence. A knock on saw Sligo’s frustrations spill over and a brief interchange between Sligo prop Adrian McHale and Ballina’s Paul Neary saw both men sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes.

Sligo took the game to Ballina upfront and their dominance in the tight led to a series of attacking scrums deep inside the Ballina 22m. The rain began to engulf Hamilton Park halfway through the half as the Sligo pack turned the screw on their opposing eight. On their third scrum on the Ballina 5m line, Sligo tried to spread it wide but a handling error saw the ball go loose, but luckily it fell to fullback Machitidze whose quick thinking saw him pop over an opportunist drop goal from 15m out to hand Sligo a deserved 3-0 lead. Ballina were handed their first points scoring opportunity straight from the restart when a Sligo mistake led to a Ballina penalty in front of the posts. However out half Cory Brown let Sligo off the hook, pulling his kick wide. He had a chance to atone for his error minutes later when Sligo conceded another penalty but this time his gallant effort from 40m out again fell just short. From the drop out Sligo slowed Ballina’s ball, and some illegal use of the boot from the frustrated Ballina hooker, Richard Kelly, saw him sent to the bin. Sligo’s lineout which was completely dominant in this half was again called into action from the resulting penalty and Ballina could only stop them illegally and conceded a penalty within kicking range. Machitidze stepped up and struck his kick sweetly between the posts to extend Sligo’s lead to 6-0.

The final ten minutes of the half saw Ballina begin to get a foothold in the game, as they tried to open up the game with out half Brown becoming more influential and a number of his impressive breaks led to the Sligo defence becoming severely tested. One of these breaks led to another penalty for the away side but again they couldn’t convert. Ballina tried to penetrate the Sligo tryline but some huge hits and hard work drove them back, with captain Ross Mannion leading by example with some fine defensive work. In injury time Ballina again pressed but a relieving clearance kick moved possession back in to the Ballina half, and a brave chargedown by Gerrity saw Sligo out half Paddy Pearson hack on and turn defence into attack. Retaining the ball, Sligo drove forward in numbers with James Wilson and Jamie Bowes making vital yards. Sligo suddenly added width when Pearson released Gavin Foley, whose sweet flick pass found Fifita loitering with intent out wide on the 22 and the powerful Tongan charged at the line, breaking three tackles as he crashed over for a vital try. Machitidze added the extras and Sligo grabbed a 13-0 halftime lead.

Ballina who would surely have felt aggrieved conceding a score against the run of play, were dealt a further blow when the superb Brown was unable to continue after the break due to a nasty looking hand injury, This led to a backline reshuffle for the away side with substitute James Cawley joining the fray. However Ballina started the second half showing no signs of any discontent when forcing an early penalty but were again disappointed when the kick dragged wide. The first ten minutes of the half were frantic and error strewn with both sides creating little. Ballina finally opened their account on 57 minutes when a Sligo infringement led to a penalty 22m out and fullback Andrew Moynihan slotted over to make it 13-3. Sligo looked distracted and further ill discipline saw them hand Moynihan another kickable opportunity, and he made no mistake this time with another three points to leave only a converted try between the teams. It was all Ballina now, and a penalty kicked to the corner saw them drive at the line, and a number of phases saw Sligo’s organised defence again called into action. This concerted pressure ended when Moynihan attempted an ambitious drop goal which came up short as Sligo began to grimly try to hold on.

As the game entered the last ten minutes, the away side continued to attack and urged on by their travelling support forced Sligo’s Nick Reynolds to take an excellent mark inside his own 22m. His kick however did not relieve the pressure and a six-phase attack saw Ballina again drive forward and an incisive break by their winger Simon Wade was only stopped by a last-gasp tackle by Pearson. Searching desperately for a try, Ballina poured forward, but Sligo’s immense defence was impenetrable. The pressure was relieved with a break by Gerrity, followed by a trademark Fifita drive. With possession on their oppositions 22m line, Foley chipped through but was hit late, presenting Machitidze with a penalty to secure the points. However he uncharacteristically pulled it to the right to give Ballina one last attack with time almost up. A break down the left gave them a chance, but a hard tackle by Reynolds forced a turnover and the referee blew for full time.

Sligo made hard work of this game from a commanding position at half-time and coach Joe Walsh will be worried by Sligo’s lacklustre final quarter to both their opening games. Sligo looked distracted in the second half and combined with the gallant Ballina efforts were lucky to hold on. Ballina were left ruing their missed chances with a lack of success from goal kicks proving vital as well as the injury to the influential Brown. However Sligo can take great heart in their defence which was well organised and superb. The tough pre-season defensive work was evident with each defensive phase tight and every channel looked secure. Mannion was excellent in the tight, with James Wilson also having a huge performance both in attack and defence. Fifita was again prominent making the hard yards and crucially getting the games only try. The much used cliché that a win is a win is deserving of being wheeled out here and Sligo can take great heart in the fact they can not fire on all cylinders and still get a result. It also says a lot about the ambition of Sligo’s coaching staff and players this year when a hard-fought home victory against local rivals is not seen as enough.

Man of the match awarded to Mataele Fifita

Man of the match awarded to Mataele Fifita

Scoring Sequence – 22 mins: Machitidze DG 3-0, 28 mins: Machitidze pen 6-0, 40 mins: Fifita try, Machitize con 13-0, 57 mins: Moynihan pen 13-3, 65 mins: Moynihan pen 13-6.

Sligo – A McHale, R Mannion (C), M Feeney, P Mullan, J Wilson, C Culhane, J Bowes, M Fifita, B Leahy, P Pearson, N Reynolds, G Foley, A Taureareawa, D Gerrity, K Machitize.
Replacements – A Feeney, G Conneely, J Sweeney (All used)

Ballina – A Moynihan, S Wade, D Newman, I Thornton, D Howley, C Brown, M Murphy, A McNulty, P Timoney, P Neary, C Forde, D Carribine, A Brown, R Kelly, T Tolan.
Replacements – C Melvin, M Kneafsey, J Cawley (All used)

[Match Photos]