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Ballyclare All Set For Second Shot At Energia Junior Cup Glory

Ballyclare All Set For Second Shot At Energia Junior Cup Glory

The Ballyclare players huddle together before last month's semi-final win over Kilfeacle at Morrissey Park ©Garth Gillespie/Ballyclare RFC

Ballyclare RFC are looking to go one step further this season by winning the Energia All-Ireland Men’s Junior Cup. They were runners-up in 2022, narrowly losing to Ulster rivals Clogher Valley, who retained the title in 2023 before earning promotion to the Energia All-Ireland League.

Ballyclare’s route back to the final was done the hard way. They travelled all over the island in their pursuit of silverware. They started in the west away to Castlebar, followed by a quarter-final trip to City of Derry, before a 15-5 win away to Kilfeacle & District in the last-four.

The Co. Antrim club have won four out of the last five Ulster Towns Cups, whilst being hot on the heels of both Instonians and Clogher Valley in the Ulster Rugby Championship, two teams that are currently flying high in their respective All-Ireland League divisions.

Taking on Bective Rangers at Dundalk RFC on Saturday (kick-off 2.30pm), the prospect of winning an All-Ireland Junior Cup title is a very special one for all involved with Ballyclare.

“This is a competition we’ve never won before. We’ve been involved in the last five Towns Cup finals, that’s a great achievement, but we want to do things we’ve never done before. It would be cool,” Ballyclare head coach Mike Orchin-McKeever told IrishRugby.ie.

“If I’m honest, we’ve won things, we’ve lost things, but we always learn from those experiences and become better from it.

“We rarely ever underperform so I think regardless of the result, our supporters will be proud of us. It should be a great day out for all of them.”

Some players could truck along for years in their club without a sniff of a trophy. A winners’ medal is a cherished memento for anyone who puts on the boots and represents their team.

It might be a bit of metal that gathers dust in a box or spends years laying on a mantlepiece, but it is something you can show your grandchildren when you grow old, in an attempt to prove you were a half-decent player back in the day!

That is what makes cup triumphs so special according to Orchin-McKeever, who continued: “I’d love for the lads to go out and achieve something different. It will be a photograph on the wall that will forever be in the clubhouse.

“Whenever they’re old and enjoying a few pints reminiscing about that day to some 22-year-old young lads, telling them, ‘rugby was different in our day’.

“There is just something special about being a cup-winning team. It’s a moment they’ll always be able to share with one another.”

A lot has been said about the strength of junior rugby in Ulster in recent years. Instonians regained their senior status at the end of the 2021/22 season, and they are currently on an incredible 29-match bonus point-winning streak having won Division 2C and led the charge to the top of Division 2B this term.

Clogher Valley followed in Inst’s footsteps, making history by earning promotion to the All-Ireland League for the first time. They are currently second in Division 2C, just behind Galwegians who they host tomorrow in a top of the table clash.

That level of competitive rugby, week in and week out, has definitely helped Ballyclare to push on. They are fighting it out with Enniskillen this year for the Ulster Rugby Championship Division 1 crown.

While having great admiration for what both Inst and Clogher have accomplished, Orchin-McKeever believes it is important that they do not compare themselves to other clubs.

“The year Instonians got promoted, Clogher came second, we were third. Last season Clogher won it and we finished second. Now, thankfully, we’ve got rid of them both!

“Clogher really pushed us last season. We had some great battles with them. I think we were the only team to beat them last season. It has been great competition between us.

“But we don’t compare ourselves to any of these clubs. It’s a bit cliché but we focus on the next job all the time. We just want to get better as a rugby team and as people.

“You can sometimes get ahead of yourself and set too many goals. We just need to enjoy our rugby,” he acknowledged.

Every team has some standout individuals who consistently put in big shifts for their side. Ballyclare captain Joel McBride, son of former Ireland international Denis, is a key man in the centre.

Jack Gamble is a dominant ball carrier who has experience of playing for Ulster ‘A’ and within the Ulster underage set-up. Jack Milton is another important cog in the back row wheel, while former Ballyclare HS captain, Matthew McDowell, is the play-maker in the back-line.

Orchin-McKeever, who is a PE teacher and director of rugby at Ballyclare High School, has coached some of the players all the way up through school and now with the club’s first team. It helps him shape their rugby development but also emphasises the connection of the community.

“It’s a small little town where a lot of the players from Ballyclare HS, or the secondary school, progress into the senior ranks. We’re a close-knit community. At away games we sometimes have more fans than the home team on the sidelines, it’s outstanding.”

Ballyclare are expecting a challenging encounter with Bective, the back-to-back Leinster Junior League champions. Their head coach added:

I’m expecting and preparing for a well-drilled forward pack, with an experienced out-half (Matthew Gilsenan) who will play a very smart game.

“Our league kind of helps us to be prepared for all elements of the game. Whether it’s a forward-focused approach or an expansive game-plan, the guys are adaptable to play whatever is put in front of them.

“Bective will have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, having come so close (to promotion) in the last couple of years. Having won the Leinster League to then lose to Instonians and Clogher Valley in the round robin. We’re expecting a good game.”