Jump to main content



O’Donnell Keeping It In The Family At Back-To-Back Champions Instonians

O’Donnell Keeping It In The Family At Back-To-Back Champions Instonians

Rhys O'Donnell is pictured with his father Keith, the Instonians RFC President, and the Ireland Club XV cap which he proudly received following last month's win away to Portugal ©Instonians RFC

More shelves might need to be built in the Instonians trophy cabinet after they were crowned Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 2B champions. Winning silverware and gaining promotion is becoming a regular occurrence for the Belfast multi-sports club.

Instonians completed the perfect season as Division 2C winners in 2022/23, picking up a try-scoring bonus point in all 18 of their wins to achieve the maximum 90 points.

Life in Division 2B proved a little bit more difficult this season, but they still managed to finish on 83 points, with their only two defeats coming out west against Connacht clubs Sligo and Galway Corinthians.

It is a phenomenal record that has seen Inst win 34 out of their 36 All-Ireland League games since returning to the senior ranks. They had spent a number of years trying to get promoted back to the AIL, falling short in the Round Robin qualifiers in 2015, 2018, and 2019.

They cleared that hurdle in 2022, and have been in flying form in the last three years, winning three successive league crowns in Ulster Rugby Championship Division 1 and the bottom two tiers of the AIL.

Explaining what their journey has been like, Inst scrum half Rhys O’Donnell said: “It’s unreal to have won the 2C and now 2B AIL titles back-to-back. I think Instonians had lost the junior qualifying tournament numerous times – it’s a very hard league to get out of.

“Once you get out of that, you have a decent enough chance of challenging for 2C. 2C was an excellent season. We had a very good year last year, we got a few boys back into the club, and more coming from the school. it’s great to have that link.

“2B was more challenging. Teams like Corinthians, Wanderers, and Sligo are all very good sides. It’s probably the test we’ll have next year, we will have more games like that. That’s what we want. We want to compete.”

Tighter contests and being pushed all the way were some of differences in the jump from Division 2C to Division 2B. Corinthians, who finished second on 75 points, Wanderers, the third place finishers on 69 points, and Sligo, who completed the top four with 59 points, all made it a battle when they faced Inst.

Five of their six encounters with the chasing pack were decided by five points or less, showing the sheer competitiveness of each match at this level.

It was at Hamilton Park in March that Sligo brought an end to Instonians’ 32-match winning streak in the All-Ireland League. Corinthians handed them their second defeat at the end of the same month.

O’Donnell admits it was probably a reality check for the whole group, telling IrishRugby.ie: “The atmosphere was pretty grim after that Sligo defeat, but all good things usually come to an end at some stage. We were hoping to keep it up until next season.

“It was probably needed. It gave us a kick up the ass. It gave us the realisation and the motivation that we must play at 100% for every game.

“Going into 2A for next season, we know that there will be plenty more games like that. From speaking to a few guys in Queen’s, I know places like Cashel are very hard to go to.

“As you go further up the league, it feels more like the All-Ireland League – everything gets a little bit harder and the beer tastes nicer on the bus home after a hard-fought win.”

The Whitten brothers, Ian and David, were classy additions to Instonians’ artillery this season, and full-back Bradley McNamara has been lighting it up in the back-field, scoring tries for fun.

Back rower Gary Dillon always offers a ball-carrying threat going forward, and since returning to the club from Ballynahinch at the start of last season, O’Donnell himself has been one of their standout performers.

He was part of the RBAI team that won the Danske Bank Ulster Schools Senior Cup in both 2016 and 2017, alongside current Ulster players Michael Lowry, James Hume, and David McCann. He joined the Ulster Sub-Academy after school.

The 2022/23 Division 2C Player of the Year, O’Donnell played for Ulster ‘A’ last year and was rewarded for his consistent club form with an Ireland Club XV call-up. He made his Club international debut off the bench during last month’s 20-17 victory away to Portugal ‘A’.

Speaking about how much it meant to him to be selected, he admitted: “It was a great honour for me. I was quite surprised to be picked at the time.

“I played with the likes of Bradley Luney, Claytan Milligan, George Pringle, and Campbell Classon in Ballynahinch before.

Adam Craig was part of the (Ireland Club XV) coaching set-up too. I was just really surprised, it’s a great memory to be able to look back on.”

The O’Donnell family and Instonians will forever share a special connection. Rhys’ dad, Keith, is the current club President. Keith played for the club during the 1990s in the AIL, and has had a great influence on his son’s rugby career.

“He introduced me to rugby, he’s my biggest fan. He’s been unreal. I got a bit of a slagging from the lads last season because he did all our match reports and I probably got too many player of the day mentions!

“It’s been special to play for the club this season while my dad has been the President. It’s a special feeling. He loves it, being President.

“I imagine he’ll stick around the club next year and he’ll find another job to do. He’s having a brilliant time.”

Instonians’ season is not finished just yet. They have the Bank of Ireland Ulster Senior Cup final coming up on Saturday, May 4, against Queen’s University at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 2.30pm).

With director of rugby Clem Boyd overseeing operations, and player coach Paul Pritchard leading the coaching team, Inst had to beat two Division 1A clubs to reach the provincial decider – Ballynahinch and City of Armagh by the same scoreline (22-21).

O’Donnell is hoping they can make a real statement of intent by lifting the Ulster Senior Cup for the first time since the 1998/99 season.

“We’ve got two weeks of training before that game, it’s the big one for me. It will be a very tough test.

“Queens are a good young team that likes to shift the ball. It’ll be a great day for the neutral, hopefully we can finish the season with the win,” he added.”