Today’s Energia All-Ireland Junior Cup final will be contested by two Ulster clubs for just the second time in its history. Ballycare and Clogher Valley battle it at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 5.30pm).
ENERGIA ALL-IRELAND JUNIOR CUP FINAL: Saturday, January 29
BALLYCLARE v CLOGHER VALLEY, Kingspan Stadium, 5.30pm
The All-Ireland Junior Cup has previously been contested by Ulster rivals back in 2010, when City of Derry narrowly beat City of Armagh at Dubarry Park.
For Ballyclare, it is a first ever appearance in the prestigious national decider, and they will be captained by centre Joel McBride.
“We weren’t sure where the final was going to be played, then we were told Kingspan and everybody was delighted,” admitted McBride.
“A few of the squad have played there before in a few Towns Cup finals so it will be nice to go back. For a lot of the guys it will be their first time playing at Kingspan, so they are looking forward to it.”
Rugby is in McBride’s DNA as his father Denis is the former Ulster and Ireland flanker, who won 32 caps for his country between 1988 and 1997.
He played at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993 and the 15s World Cup two years later in South Africa, and has naturally had a huge influence on Joel’s rugby career.
“From before I could walk, I was chucking a ball about and dad will be there to support me. He has been at every game of mine since I was in P3, so it is definitely in the blood.”
Ballyclare head coach Mike Orchin-McKeever commented: “There’s a strong sense of excitement from the players to be involved in a fixture at Kingspan Stadium along with it being an All-Ireland final.
“The Junior Cup is a great competition and we have enjoyed it over recent years. A target was set of the semi-final this year and now the target has been refocused.
“I’m grateful for the players to have the opportunity to play at Kingspan and extend that thanks to those who made the decision.
“A group of our squad will have played in Towns Cup finals in 2018 and 2019 here, and missed out on the 2020 final due to rugby being paused. A first run-out for some of them is fantastic and dreams are coming true.”
Clogher Valley have enjoyed success at Ulster Rugby headquarters in the recent past. From 2007 to 2014 they won the Towns Cup four times and lifted the provincial Junior Cup in 2013.
However, the All-Ireland Junior Cup has so far eluded the County Tyrone side, the closest they came to bringing the trophy back to the Cran was an agonising 10-9 defeat to Enniscorthy in the 2014 final.
Clogher have won 18 of their 19 games in all competitions this season and head to Belfast on a 12-match winning streak,
Their number 8 Callum Smyton explained: “Our season has gone pretty well and our league form has been really consistent. This competition is something we’ve really targeted this year as a club because we’ve never won it before.
“This is a special group too so it’s something we want to get over the line. I’m really excited to play at Kingspan as I’ve never got the chance to play here before.
“There’s a lot of excitement in training and there’s a great buzz about the club and the town at the minute. Everyone’s feeding off that and we want to give it our all on Saturday.”
Clogher’s head coach Stephen Bothwell added: “When we get it right, we play well. We’re very lucky that the boys drive their own standards and just because we get a win, we are not always pleased – it’s about the performance and a good performance we take a lot of pleasure out of, the players and me as a coach.
“It’s brilliant (to reach the final), we have been beaten in the final before in 2014 so it is nice to get another crack at it.
“There are eight from the previous final still in the squad and the rest are young boys, four or five are 19 or 20-years-old, so there is a good mix and a good buzz about the place.
“It should be a great occasion and there is a real determination in the boys and the club to bring the cup back to the Valley.”
Ballyclare and Clogher have met twice in the Ulster Rugby Championship this season with Bothwell’s charges winning on both occasions – 14-10 at Ballyclare back in August and 14-7 at home last month.
BALLYCLARE: Mark Jackson; Owen Kirk, Joel McBride (capt), Matthew McCullough, Scott Martin; Matthew McDowell, James Creighton; Dean Jones, Matthew Coulter, Jack Black, Josh Young, Grant Bartley, Ross Johnston, Aaron Playfair, Jack Gamble.
Replacements: Adam Barron, Ricky Lutton, Harry Mawhinney, Ryan Tweed, Matthew Robson, Angus Robson, Ross Patterson, Matthew Fitzgerald.
CLOGHER VALLEY: Ewan Haire; Stuart Brown, Paul Armstrong (capt), Reece Smyton, Regan Wilkinson; David Maxwell, Matthew Bothwell; Michael Treanor, Kyle Cobane, Neil Henderson, Eugene McKenna, David Sharkey, David Stinson, Aaron Dunwoody, Callum Smyton.
Replacements: Adam Boles, Joel Busby, Rodney Bennett, Jamie Allen, Richard Primrose, Neil Trotter, Aaron Crawford, Ryan Wilson.
Referee: Padraic Reidy (IRFU)