Clogher Valley’s rapid rise to senior status has been followed up with four straight bonus point wins to start their Energia All-Ireland League journey. It is a milestone season for the club which was only formed in 1990.
The County Tyrone side have enjoyed great success in recent seasons, winning back-to-back Energia All-Ireland Junior Cups while reaching new heights by winning the Ulster Rugby Championship Division 1 title.
Promotion play-off victories over Bective Rangers and Richmond, whom they beat 31-17 in the final in Ashbourne, sealed that historic place in Division 2C for the 2023/24 campaign.
Clogher Valley head coach Stephen Bothwell (pictured below) said that hard work and a sheer will to win has helped his players achieve these once unthinkable targets.
“In terms of Clogher, we’re very much an agriculturally based club,” he told IrishRugby.ie. “A lot of the lads are coming from that farming background. We work very hard for each other and we don’t give up easy.
“That hard working spirit translates to the way they play on the pitch. If you’ve seen us, we’re not the biggest team in the world but we never give up. The team has a great will to win.”
The ferociously competitive nature of the Ulster Rugby Championship means that when teams do make that leap up to the All-Ireland League, they are battle hardened and more than ready to push on to the next level. Instonians took all 90 points available to them last season, strolling to the Division 2C crown.
The high standard of rugby in the province’s junior league means it has been no surprise to see Bangor, Omagh Academicals, Instonians and Clogher Valley all earn AIL promotion since 2016.
“In the past few years, there has been ourselves, Instonians, Ballyclare and Cooke all trying to get that top spot,” explained Bothwell. “A new team joins the race each season, there’s always three or four teams that make it really competitive.
“We have a really young group. I got into coaching when my son started in the minis here, and then when he started in secondary school, I started coaching in the old Portora, now known as the Enniskillen Royal Grammar School.
“I had a good team there and we were well able to hold our own against some of the bigger schools. A lot of that group came here to Clogher with me. You’ve got my own son Matthew at scrum half, Callum Smyton at number 8, and David Stinson in the second row.
“Another guy that has played a huge part in our journey is our captain Paul Armstrong (pictured below) ever since he returned from Dunganon a few years back.”
Bothwell has a special connection with many of the young players in the team. He has coached several of them all the way up through the ranks, from minis and in school. A lot of that group are in their early 20s. He believes this is the right time for them to take on this new challenge.
I’ve coached some of those guys since they were in P3. We’re like a big family, and I suppose they are all like my sons. I know the way they think and they know how I think. We’re a close-knit team.
“We always had senior clubs come knocking for some of our players. You never want to lose them. I always felt with the age profile of our team if we could get to senior rugby that would make a big difference.
“Our aim is to keep growing from that. The lads are really maturing physically and we’ve always felt when this happened, things would work out really well.”
The Fivemiletown-based club’s short existence puts them in a unique position compared to many other more established clubs across the country. They are continuing to grow both on and off the field, while also trying to develop the social scene within the club.
They recently launched their community hub in the club which has already proven to be a great success, with hopes of getting a bar license later in the season.
Clogher Valley bring with them quite a young fanbase from within their local community. Their supporters have really got behind the team in recent years, really buying into the journey that the club is now on.
Bothwell has been delighted to see the growing support each week at the Cran and on away trips, noting: “In that first game away to Balina, I looked at the sideline and I couldn’t believe how many of our supporters travelled to the game.
“I know it was our first AIL game, so it was always going to be special but there was more of us than there was Ballina people.
“The same goes for the game in Midleton a couple of weeks ago. So many of the supporters travelled down for the weekend and came to our game on the Saturday.
“Our supporters really got behind us for the AIL promotion play-off games at the end of last season too. I’ve been blown away by it.”
The Valley, who currently hold a three-point lead at the top of the Division 2C, have been riding the crest of a wave for the last few months after winning silverware in both league and cup competitions.
The momentum has not stopped building and winning their first four AIL games, with try-scoring bonus points, was certainly a statement of intent. They face a big test tomorrow with a trip to Limerick to face third-placed Bruff.
“We’ve been delighted with the start to our season. There’s a big jump to (Division) 2B, we’ll see how this year goes. Galwegians are looking like serious contenders, and Bruff look like a tidy side.
“We’ll take it game by game and see what happens. But we know there is a special buzz around the place at the moment. The boys are on the rise and once you lose that it’s very hard to get that buzz back.
“We’d love to keep winning. Based on the way we’ve started the season, we’d probably be disappointed if we didn’t make the play-offs.
“I want to see the lads playing the type of rugby we like to play. It helped us get to this point. But most of all, I want to see the lads developing as players and young men.
“I want them to be enjoying their rugby and having a good time along the way. If everyone is enjoying themselves, they’ll continue to come training and that good atmosphere will travel down through the whole club. That’s what we want,” added the Valley boss.