Instonians beat Tullamore 68-29 a fortnight ago to complete the perfect season, picking up a try-scoring bonus point with all 18 wins to achieve the maximum 90 points at the end of their Energia All-Ireland League campaign.
The Belfast club, who were playing junior rugby last season, had a dream return to the senior ranks, securing promotion to Division 2B with three games to spare.
Their player coach Paul Pritchard said it has been an enjoyable few weeks since lifting the league trophy which they received following their final home game against Skerries at the start of the month.
“We’ve sort of been celebrating for three or four weekends now, so it’s sort of been drawn out. We have an end of season event in a few weeks, we’re fairly milking it at this stage which is great,” he quipped.
Pritchard went on to say that what this Instonians squad have accomplished, especially the flawless points tally, is something that will stay with them all for a very long time.
“I think we made them aware that it’s history and it may never be done again. We simply said that in 20 or 30 years’ time we’ll be sitting in a bar talking about that season.
“We’re not Lions or we haven’t won the Heineken Cup, but as a group who’ve worked very hard over two or three seasons…the young guys might not realise it now, but it is quite a big deal,” acknowledged the experienced back rower.
It has has been an unforgettable period for everyone at the club, where the buzz of All-Ireland League rugby has brought more people back to the club, making for nights that will live long in the memory of both players and supporters.
Instonians RFC President Owen Lambert believes the good results produced by all the teams across the club has made his job much easier.
“We’ve got on average 90 people at the pre-match lunches. The atmosphere has been electric. We’ve got people coming back to the club who haven’t been there in a while. The word is around that Instonians on a home match day is the place to be, it’s a great day’s craic,” he explained.
The feel-good factor and sense of togetherness around Shaw’s Bridge has undoubtedly contributed to their recent success. Pritchard echoed the thoughts of their President.
We’ve got four teams out there this season, which not a lot of Division 2C teams are able to do.
“With the banter that’s been building around the club in the last few years, I’ve been about at a few clubs and I certainly feel like this is the club where there are no small groups. Everybody fits in here and has the craic together.”
The newly-crowned Division 2C champions lost their place in the All-Ireland League after being relegated at the end of the 2013/14 season. They spent the next eight years in the ultra competitive Ulster Rugby Championship.
They won Ulster’s Division 1 crown last season, followed by success in the All-Ireland League qualifiers where they beat Bective Rangers to claim promotion back to the ‘big time’ – an achievement fellow Ulster side Clogher Valley have been able to repeat this season.
Pritchard, who previously won an All-Ireland League 2B title with Rainey Old Boys, agrees that junior rugby is no cakewalk and that the fierce competition in Ulster’s top division gets you ready for the jump to the next level.
“I remember my first game of junior and as I said I was coming from Rainey, we had just won 2B. I got a shock quite quickly, I thought I was going to be able to rock around at 50% and just saunter into retirement or so I thought.
“I got some smacks into the face and I was quickly woken up to how competitive the league actually was.
“It is very competitive and I suppose it does help coming into that next league. We’ll see how well Clogher do next year. I think we’ve set a pretty high standard, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare,” he admitted.
To the naked eye, it looks as if Inst, who finished a full 25 points clear of second-placed Skerries. breezed their way to glory. However, like every successful team they faced challenges along the way.
Reflecting on the campaign, Lambert said: “I thought in Midleton we put in a fantastic performance to get a bonus point, because at half-time you couldn’t actually see which side was which because all the jerseys were brown and people were running and slipping. I think that was resilience in the face of adversity.”
Having thoroughly enjoyed his tenure as President, he hopes that this historic group will go on to become inspirations for the younger generation coming up through the club.
You want your junior players to say, ‘Paul Pritchard is my hero, I want to be a flanker when I grow up, or Mark Keane or Rhys O’Donnell‘. I think we’ve got that and that bit is pleasing to me.”
There is a real sense around the club that this is only the beginning of their journey as they fully intend to progress further in the years to come. Promotion in Division 2B is very much the target heading into the 2023/24 season.
Eager for his Inst side to strive for more and keep pushing forward, Pritchard added: “I think if you find somewhere you’re happy to be you’re going to go backwards.
“If our aim isn’t to get out of the league and keep going up, until we have no more leagues to get out, then you’re in the wrong place and you’re going to go backwards. It’s simple, that’s the way it is in rugby.
“We know it’s going to be more demanding and it’s going to take a lot more from us, but I think we’ve shown over the last two years, we are ready for it and we are looking forward.”