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Market Town Rivalry In Ulster

Market Town Rivalry In Ulster

Former Division One winners Dungannon and Ballymena meet in the AIB League this weekend. Irish Former Division One winners Dungannon and Ballymena meet in the AIB League this weekend. Irish rugby statistician Des Daly reviews the history of both clubs.rugby statistician Des Daly reviews the history of both clubs.

Four different Munster clubs, one Leinster club and two Ulster clubs have won the AIB League since its inception in the 1990/91 season. The two Ulster outfits namely Dungannon, who won the trophy in 2001 and Ballymena, who won it two years later, meet on Saturday at Stevenson Park (kick-off 2.30pm).

First, let us have a look at the origins of the two clubs and then their gradual rise to prominence in today’s Irish domestic game. Prior to the official foundation of Dungannon FC in 1873, rugby in Ulster was centred in Belfast where NIFC (established in 1859) and Queen’s College Belfast (later QUB) established in 1869, were already in existence.

Dungannon FC was in fact the first rugby club to be formed outside the major cities of Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Ballymena RFC started up in 1887. Both clubs were fortunate at the outset to have local feeder nurseries, the Royal School as well as Stevenson’s Mill in the case of Dungannon and Ballymena Academy as regards Ballymena.

Dungannon played senior for 34 years and then reverted to junior ranks before re-appearing in the Ulster Senior League in 1954/55. They won their first Ulster Senior League in 1960/61 and their first Ulster Senior Cup in 1964, although they had contested the 1901 final.

Ballymena arrived in senior ranks for the 1952/53 season. The Braidmen won their first Ulster Senior Cup in 1963, one year before Dungannon, and their first Ulster Senior League outright in 1975/76. To date, Ballymena have won the Ulster Senior Cup eleven times, along the way they have won three-in-a-row titles on two occasions, most recently in 2005.

Dungannon have won the Ulster Senior Cup nine times, the last occasion being 2002. The County Tyrone club had the distinction of lifting the trophy on four consecutive occasions (the only occurrence during the 20th century) in the mid 1990s.

Ballymena qualified for Division One of the first AIB League in 1990/91 and have been present ever since in the top tier, save for the 1993/94 and 1994/95 seasons. Dungannon did not initially qualify for the competition. As the 1990/91 Ulster Senior League champions, the club joined the winners of the other three provincial league competitions in a round robin at the end of that season.

From this, they gained promotion into Division Two in 1991/92, which they won, and joined Ballymena in the top flight for the 1992/93 campaign.

In the first ever AIB League contest between the two clubs, played in January 1993, refereed by the current IRFU Rugby Administrator, Gordon Black, Dungannon, playing at home, won 26-15. Willie Anderson contributed one of the Dungannon tries that afternoon while international out-half Derek McAleese slotted over five penalties for the County Antrim club.

Since 1994/95, Dungannon have been relegated twice from Division One. They immediately bounced back on each occasion and have competed in the top flight for the last eight seasons.

Intense rivalry has always existed between the two clubs. They have heretofore met on ten occasions in the AIB League – five times at Eaton Park and five times at Stevenson Park. The honours have been split evenly between the two clubs with each of them losing one game at home, Ballymena by twelve points in January 2002 and Dungannon by a one-point margin eleven months later.

Dungannon’s biggest margin of victory was 29 points in December 1996 while Ballymena have two 15-point winning margins to their credit. The two clubs never managed to meet during their brief sojourns in Division Two.

After one particular Dungannon v Ballymena match, over 50 years ago, it was agreed during the post-match celebrations that an annual game would be played between the two clubs on December 26 and that a cup would be presented to the victors. Dr. Jack Kyle, holder at the time of a world record 46 international caps, was approached and he agreed to his name being used for the trophy.

The first game, won 3-0 by Ballymena at Eaton Park, was played 1956/57 and the fixture has been an annual event ever since. The good doctor was on hand to present the trophy on the occasion of the 50th encounter in the series on December 26, 2005.