A tale of two halves at Malone
A poor first half and injuries cost Ards at Gibson Park.
Ards 1sts took their first away trip of the season on Saturday, albeit only as far as the Cregagh Road to play Malone 2nds in the Conference League. This league gives a good opportunity to get competitive games before the Championship League starts and after a strong win the week before, Ards made a large number of changes due to player absence and to give other senior squad members a run out under the eyes of the coaching team.
The pack saw Matthew Bell and Robert Hull introduced along with Paddy Bond being promoted from the bench from the week before. Jamie Lemon was given his 1sts debut in the backline and Stewart Paul took a starting spot, having had a strong 2nd half from the bench in the previous win.
Malone put out a very strong side, the majority of whom had played for their 1sts the previous week and included a very strong pack led by last season's captain.
Ards started brightly into a very strong wind and very soon worked their way into the home 22 with some well executed phases. An excellent break from Stewart Paul almost found Danny Patton on a straight line that would have put him clean through for a score, but the pass just didn't stick and the ball was lost forward. From that point, Ards struggled to put together continuity in their game plan and their line out was misfiring, admittedly against a very hard and disruptive opposition.
Malone made good use of the wind advantage and pressurising an Ards scrum close to the posts, the ball squeezed out and the Malone scrum half pounced for the opening score, the conversion was charged down by Jamie Lemon. Malone 5 v Ards 0
Gaining territory easily with the boot, Malone won a defensive line out in the Ards 22 and after some good clean phases, their excellent openside crashed through for a score, again the conversion was unsuccessful. Malone 10 v Ards 0
Ards started to play through the hands and through the middle of the pitch into the hard wind and earned a good opportunity out wide, but wing Jamie Lemon was just bundled into touch. Further good work saw No8 Hamilton held up over the line under the posts.
Attacking again shortly after and with the half time whistle approaching, Ards had a good series of phases ended by poor execution and good defence and the Malone centre picked up loose ball and ran in up the blind side from 70 metres to score Malone's 3rd try of the half, again unconverted. Malone 15 v Ards 0
Pressing hard again quickly for a score, the half ended in the Malone 22 with a knee injury to Ards’ debutant flanker Robert Hull when he was cleared out at a ruck, fellow flanker Danny Patton was also replaced following a head collision in the tackle. Adam Coulter replaced Trevor Devlin on the wing and Devlin and Chivers joined the pack.
Half-time: Malone 15 v Ards 0
Some strong words were delivered in the circle at the break. Although there had been flashes of good play in both attack and defence, there had been little continuity in either and poor execution from Ards in the first half.
Now playing with that wind advantage and with some tactical reminders delivered, the Ards team put out a much improved 2nd half more reminiscent of what they had produced in previous weeks.
Phases were built with patience, hard carries matched with soft offloads and the backline opened up and produced more penetrative line breaks and interchanges. Hamilton, Chivers and McBurney were carrying hard in the forwards and Paul was linking well with his centres and creating space for the back 3 to work with.
Moving into the home side's 22, half backs and centres all worked well together and eventually, Taylor found a gap and produced an offload to Paddy Bond's straight line for Ards opening points. Devlin's fine form with the boot continued as a tough conversion was made. Malone 15 v Ards 7
After repelling some good Malone attacks, Ards cleared and gained good territory. The home side overthrew their line out and the ball spilled loose for Ards second row Bell to ground for a further try, the tough conversion was made by temporary flanker Devlin. Malone 15 v Ards 14
It was not all Ards though, as Malone's tough and experienced team were equally effective in attack and stout defence was on display throughout the Ards team in keeping them at bay.
More good phases from Ards, with their patterns restored, saw more great work in the Ards midfield. Both Devlin and Lemon were given opportunities to score and take the lead, but defence in numbers from Malone saw both bundled into touch.
With the game drawing to a close, Ards found themselves camped in their 22 in defence and at the mercy of the referees whistle. One penalty too many saw Captain Andrew Foster carded in the final minute and after a very long series of phases, Malone eventually found a mismatch out wide and scored to close the game with an unconverted try.
Final score: Malone 20 v Ards 14
To a man, the Ards squad was disappointed to have underperformed as a team on the day and to lose a match so closely against a testing opposition. The improvement in this side from 12 months ago is clear to see, but consistency for 80 minutes and translating work on the training paddock to match day is key.
It was also pleasing to see a heavy travelling support providing a well populated and vocal touchline. Alicadoos and injured players were joined by many family members. The Foster and Taylor babies are regular spectators and the latest Coulter addition debuted at the match. With this week's arrival of the Banford Bambino (late, of course, in the style of his father!), the senior squad are working hard to get out an Under 3's XV for next season