At the start of the season not many would have predicted that City of Armagh would go on to win the Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B title. Their reward is a much-coveted place at the top table of the Irish club rugby scene.
It is an achievement that was unimaginable not so long ago. Their head coach Chris Parker, who was a very deserving winner of the Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division Coach Of The Season award, admits securing their historic promotion to Division 1A was a surreal feeling for all involved with the club.
“It was surreal, something we never really spoke about as a group. At the start of the season, we just spoke about the processes we had to go through, we never really had an end goal as such,” he told IrishRugby.ie.
“Even when we got top of the league, we spoke more about making sure we were top again for next Saturday. We never really talked about winning the league. We just talked about finishing first after every game and seeing where that takes us.
“It was all a bit surreal. We’re a small country club, a wee bit different to some of the demographics of some of the other clubs. It was surreal I guess, but it starts to sink in, the magnitude of what we’ve been able to achieve.”
Division 1B is considered by many as the most competitive of all the five Energia AIL Men’s Divisions. It has an air of unpredictability that makes it both hard to call and fascinating to watch. There are always a few surprising results in each round.
The teams that usually succeed in this league and challenge for top honours are the ones who can string multiple wins together, coupled with a consistency in performances.
The Ulster club had an impressive record of fourteen wins and only four defeats across the league campaign, which ultimately made them very worthy champions after 18 rounds of the regular season.
“I think 1B is historically such a tight league and if you can get a run of results, you can pull yourself up the league table quite quickly and get yourself in a good position,” explained Parker, a geography teacher and rugby coach at Royal School Armagh.
“We sort of knew that if we could keep banking results and building up points, we’d give ourselves a shot at it anyway.”
Buccaneers were the front runner heading into the Christmas break, but it was Old Belvedere who mounted the closest challenge to City of Armagh heading into that last block of fixtures. The Dubliers put together a powerful eight-match winning streak that kept them in the hunt.
Parker believes the one game-at-a-time mantra helped his team to get over the line in those last few weeks of the season where they wrapped up the title at home to UCC with a game in hand.
Knowing the nature of the group they don’t really respond well when they are favourites, so it was certainly a difficult place to be in once we got top. We just kept trying to work week to week and see where we ended up.
“We knew especially having lost to Old Belvedere in the run-in that they were the form team and they were coming in hard.
“Looking at our last three fixtures, it certainly wasn’t easy and for results to fall like they did and for us not to have to get anything from that last game away to Buccaneers, it was just a relief.”
City of Armagh have been on a remarkable journey during the last 12 years since coming up from the junior ranks to the All-Ireland League for the start of 2011/12 campaign.
Andy Hughes, who is now with Ballymena, was their head coach back at the start of it all. Parker, who has also coached at Ballynahinch and with various Ulster youth teams, came in six years ago as an assistant coach before spending the last three seasons in the head coach role.
Andrew Willis and Phil Fletcher are two players who started playing when the club was at junior level and they now have the opportunity to play top flight rugby in a few months’ time.
Boosted by three Ulster Senior Cup successes between 2017 and 2020, along with two Ulster Rugby Premiership wins and a first ever Bateman Cup final appearance in 2019, the club has certainly been on an upward trajectory.
Giving his insight, Parker commented: “Everything has just happened very quickly through those 12 years.
“We know that jump from junior to senior was really important because it meant that players from the local area who maybe left to play at a higher level started to come back to the club because they were going to get All-Ireland League rugby with their home club and that was probably a big catalyst for it.”
The players and coaching staff alike at the club are under no illusions about the massive task ahead of them when they begin life in Division 1A.
The physicality and higher standards and tempo of play will be nothing like they have experienced to date. They know it is going to be a big battle from game one.
“We’ve got to hit the ground running. We’re very realistic, we know there will be some tough days. At that level in 1A we know that if we’re off by that 1% or 2% you’ll get punished, and you could get a score put on you. But that’s a challenge we have to embrace,” insisted a hopeful Parker.
The Palace Grounds have become a real fortress for them in recent times. They went unbeaten at home this season, digging deep to win four of those games by four points or less. It was a big contributing factor to them winning the Division 1B crown.
They will need to make it a tough place to go for the rest of Division 1A teams, relying on their home support to spur them on to some big results.
To the neutral, survival would be the obvious target for the men from the Orchard County, but Parker insists they have to aim higher if his charges are going to get the best out of themselves.
“If we go in with only the goal of survival, we’ll only end up in one place. We look at what Ballynahinch have been able to achieve, finishing fifth in the league. We have to have the aim of going top five.
“Whether or not we do that is another thing, but I think we’ve really got to be aiming for top half and try and really push ourselves and have a bit of belief.
“We may not get that, we may not even be in the top half all season, but I think if we just aim to finish eighth, we’ll end up in a play-off or get relegated.
“We’re there to compete, we’re not just there to make up the numbers. Whilst it’s a fantastic achievement to get there, if we only last one season it will be quickly forgotten about,” he added.