Rugby Domestic preview Saturday 9th September 2017 by George Millar

Instonians Bit First

In the Kukri Ulster Rugby Championship, title contenders Ballyclare and Instonians have won 2/2 of their opening league games to contest the Div 1 title. In Div 2 Grosvenor are favourites to win the league after narrowly missing out on promotion to Belfast neighbours CIYMS. Newly promoted Ballymoney along with Gary Longwell’s Randalstown have also won 2/2 to join early pacesetters Grosvenor for the league title and promotion.

This weekend we have the 1st Rd of the Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup with Cup holders and favourites Ballynahinch starting their defence at Larne. With nine games up for decision and seven teams receiving a bye can any of the Div 1 teams challenge Ballynahinchs position as the top Junior club team in Ulster after a clean sweep in the league and two Cup competitions last season.

There are a number of interesting ties with Dromore v Clogher Valley at Barben Hill and the East Belfast derby involving Grosvenor against CIYMS at Gibson Park. There are also matches involving Ballymoney v Academy at Kilraughts Road and Limavady against Randalstown from Div 2. Ballymoney won their opening league match against Academy 11- 9 despite Academy striking the crossbar with a late penalty attempt. Randalstown were 42 – 10 winners at Limavady in the league last Saturday.

Welcome to the first Domestic preview for 2017/18. When I read that Bernard Jackman described himself as a ‘Rugby Junkie’ I didn’t realise you could apply this term to many of the rugby followers in Ulster. What would we do with out the hundreds of volunteers who give freely of their time to ensure clubs have the support structures in place to provide rugby to all our players whether at Men’s or Women’s level that includes Adult, Youth and Mini Rugby.

Due to family commitments it will take me another 2/3 weeks to get up to date with what is happening at the clubs in the SONI Ulster Rugby Premiership and Divisions 1 and 2 of the Ulster Kukri Ulster Rugby Championship. That is 32 clubs in total.

Whilst trawling through the local media in the Northern Ireland I was shocked to see the under reporting of club rugby in local provincial newspapers. We are all competing for column space with other sports such as Soccer and Gaelic to give club rugby a profile as we look to promote our sport. I have been told by Sports Editors, Club rugby does not have a sufficient following  to warrant inclusion. This is now my 5th season writing on Club rugby in Ulster. During the  first two seasons I spent working with Garry Watters at In Touch rugby we had 20,000 + following Domestic rugby in Ulster. Today we have 100,000 + with the figures increasing year on year.

Forums such as myself, In Touch Rugby and The Front Row Union along with the weekly  ‘Total Rugby’ supplement published by the News Letter each Tuesday are the face of Club rugby in Ulster with limited column space  provided by the Belfast Telegraph and the Sunday Life to the club game.

The question I must ask is enough being done by the clubs and the Domestic Games committees and officials within the Ulster Branch to promote the game. Many of the supporters following the professional game in Ulster come from non playing rugby backgrounds in the Province. The difficulty for the Club game is engaging these communities with the Domestic game. I am not aware of the Irish News providing column space for the Domestic game in Ulster. Within Ulster I feel we have fallen behind Munster and Connacht in promoting the club game. Even Leinster have taken steps on their website to promote Domestic Club rugby.

Do we need to take steps to improve the training and competency of our Club PRO’s and Media volunteers. Previous workshops have been held in recent seasons by Ulster rugby to improve our delivery. Digital online media is the way forward to engage the present and future generations of domestic supporters. On match day several clubs use twitter to publish teams lists with regular updates on score lines to keep supporters and the wider rugby community who are unable to attend matches up to date. This is an area clubs and the Ulster Branch need to review to maximise the opportunities to  engage communities in supporting and attending matches at their local rugby club.

Coleraine Secretary Crawford McConkey  has set up a Whats App Rugby Group that publishes results of matches in Div 1 and 2 of the Kukri Ulster Rugby Championship each Saturday after the conclusion of games in these Divisions. I have asked Crawford to extend his results service to include fixtures involving the Ulster All Ireland league clubs. To date 50% of the Senior clubs have responded. We all know once the final whistle has blown in a game we are anxious to find out the results in the other matches that can impact on our team. This service provided by Crawford then provides a topic of conversation for members and supporters in the clubhouse afterwards.

If you want to be included in this results service contact Crawford McConkey at M 07917193682.

For the clubs competing in the SONI Ulster Rugby Premiership this weekend the matches will provide coaches and players with valuable playing time as teams prepare for the opening matches in the Ulster Bank All Ireland league next week. In Div 1 Ballymena, City of Armagh and Banbridge won their opening matches whilst in Div 2 Belfast Harlequins, Bangor and Queens Uni were winners.  Current league champions Armagh are favourites to retain the Stevenson Shield in Div 1 with any one of three teams from Queens Uni, Belfast Harlequins and Bangor chasing the Div 2 title.

In the First Trust Senior Cup games played last weekend their were wins for holders Ballynahinch, Malone, Banbridge and Dungannon. In the quarter finals to be played on the 14th October:

Ballymena v Omagh

Bangor v Ballynahinch

City of Armagh v Banbridge

Malone v Dungannon

ULSTER RUGBY PREMIERSHIP DIV 1

Ballymena v City of Armagh

Ballynahinch v Banbridge

City of Derry v Malone

Ballymena v City of Armagh

Both these teams met in a pre season friendly at Eaton Park with Armagh winning 31 – 10. Armagh have happy memories of their last league visit to Ballymena when they defeated the home side 34 – 12 to win the Stevenson Shield for the first time. With Brian McLaughlin moving on from the Palace Grounds to Ballynahinch, Willy Faloon has taken over the reins with Chris Parker as his assistant. An opening day league win over Ballynahinch 32 – 19 has consolidated their position as title favourites. With the playing squad enduring minimum disruption in the off season the only changes have witnessed hooker David Swann joining Queens Uni and winger Andrew McPhillips moving to neighbours Dungannon. Second row Ollie Millar has joined Coleraine as a dual status player to pursue his studies at Coleraine University. Armagh have strengthened their forwards with the signing of Robert Whitten from Instonians and the inclusion of talented Spanish centre Pau – Gimeno – Alvarez who scored two tries in the warm up match at Ballymena.

Ballymena Head coach Andy Graham is having to manage the departure of several players from Eaton Park in the summer including Stephen Crooks, Josh McIIroy, Adam Kirk and Nicholas Stirling to (Rainey OB). Conal Boomer (Ballynahinch), Michael Lagan, James Gallagher and Fraser Wallace to (Belfast Harlequins), Paddy McGowan (Coleraine). Ritchie McMaster and John Creighton (Queens Uni). Mark Best (Jersey), Martin Irwin (Ballymoney). Tony McGuinness (Old Belvedere).

He will have the following Ulster players available this season: Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Brett Herron, Dave Shanahan, Matty Rea, Callum Patterson, Marcus Rea and Adam McBurney.

Despite the departure of players the coach is confident his squad has the experience along with several new faces from Ballymena Academy, Cambridge House and the clubs Under 18 team to be competitive this season with Rodger McBurney taking over as Club Captain. The coach is looking to his players to give Armagh a good game as his team look for a win. There are a lot of hungry young players coming through with the coach confident he has the capability within the squad to be competitive in the All Ireland league.

Ballynahinch v Banbridge

With both teams playing in Div 1B of the Ulster Bank All Ireland League this season, Head coaches; Daniel Soper at Banbridge and Rugby Consultant Brian McLaughlin at Ballynahinch will be looking a win to take into their opening AIL match. Historically Ballynahinch have been comfortable winners in these meetings. Both teams know the importance of the win and building momentum. Banbridge have impressed with their opening wins over Malone and Rainey in the league and Cup. Ballynahinch suffered an opening day defeat at Armagh and were forced to dig deep to overcome a spirited Quins performance in winning their Senior Cup match at Deramore 18 - 13 last weekend.

For the trip to Ballymacarn Park Banbridge make one change to their forwards with Greg Jones replacing the unavailable Matt Laird. Prop James McCrum takes his place on the bench after missing pre season. In the backs Ian Porter starts at scrum half with Ulster star Rob Lyttle making his debut for the County Down club.

City of Derry v Malone

After suffering a convincing 47 – 3 defeat at Gibson Park last week against a talented Malone side new City of Derry Head coach Trevor Will has to turn around two heavy losses as his players prepare for the All Ireland League on Saturday week. Several retirements have placed the responsibility on a number of the clubs under 20 players to step in and fill the vacuum.

Malone Head coach Paddy Armstrong has assembled an extended squad that will provide depth in strength for the challenges that await them in the All Ireland league. Malone narrowly missed out on joining Banbridge in Div 1B last season and will be looking to go one step further this season.

The impressive second row Michael Shiels has recovered from a knock he took last week. The coach is planning to make a number of changes this week in order to give players opportunities before the first AIL game.

The coach has been delighted with the numbers at training so far this season with a lot of hard work being put in by the players which will make for a number of tough calls moving forward in terms of team selection.

ULSTER RUGBY PREMIERSHIP DIV 2

Dungannon v Bangor

Queens Uni v Belfast Harlequins

Rainey OB v Omagh

Dungannon v Bangor

Both teams have made an encouraging start to their season. Dungannon lost their opening league game at home to Queens but reversed this result with a Senior Cup win at the Dub. Bangor put in an impressive opening day performance against Rainey OB to deservedly win 22- 12. It was the dominant manner in which the Bangor scrum assisted by the presence of former Ulster second row Lewis Stevenson won this contest. We all know how important it is to have a solid platform in the AIL to provide possession for your backs. On the evidence of this performance Bangor players are adapting to the physicality required to be competitive week in and week out in the AIL.

Dungannon Head coach Andy Hughes has had a busy off season strengthening his playing squad at Stevenson Park. Players coming in include scrum half John Russell (Dromore),  Centre Chrish Swash from Exeter University who played for English Universities last season. Full back Andrew McGregor  (Instonians). Winger Mervyn Brown ex Royal School Armagh. He has returned from Hartpury University. Winger Andrew McPhillips (Armagh). Out half Duran Krummeck who has played for Natal Under 19s/20s + sevens. Scrum half Ben Matchett  returned from New Zealand. Conor McGeough  (NZ) involved with Ulster under 19 squad this season. Back row Jonah Mau’u played for Dungannon under 18s last season. Will be registered as Dungannons’ overseas player. Hooker Malcolm Allister (Portadown). The coach is hoping to add three more players before the start of the AIL.

Other players returning to Dungannon are Willy Graham, Peter Doran and Matthew Montgomery after playing rugby out in New Zealand. Former 1st xv Captain James McMahon continues his rehabilitation after shoulder surgery  and is expected to return by Dec 2017.

Players out: James Bates (Clogher Valley). Gerard Treanor (Queens Uni). Back row Bryan Davidson has been forced to retire after suffering a reoccurrence of a shoulder injury in the pre season friendly with Instonians. Two other early season injuries have ruled out second rows Ross McCaughey and JJ Kane.

The coach is happy with 40+ players attending training this season. Assisted by the experienced Seamus Mallon and Ulster star Pete Nelson there is a positivity that Dungannon can be up amongst the promotion challengers in Div 2B this season.

Bangor 1st xv Manager Ricky Armstrong assures me Bangor rugby club are in a very positive place for the coming season. Pre season has been good with 1st xv defeating a strong Rainey side two weeks ago. Last year was tough for the club and a learning curve as a Senior Club from the successes as a Junior club the previous season. The difference this season was the players turned up in July for training to work hard after starting their new S& C programme in June with the resultant improvements in fitness and strength.

He feels the club are better prepared for the rigours of the All Ireland League. When you are organising groups of players to travel away once a month  for the entire season this takes a lot of organisation. Something Ricky feels the club will be a lot smarter at in making arrangements this season.

Jason Morgan will focus on his role as a Head coach after hanging his boots up. He is concentrating on getting the best out of the players. Without Jason’s contribution as a player the club would not be in its present position.

Lewis Stevenson has come in as player forwards coach and has impressed everyone at the club since his arrival. He has great personal skills and has developed a strong rapport with the playing squad. He is the experienced player this young Bangor pack has been looking to take them forward.

David Irwin has also joined the coaching team and brings a lot of experience from his playing and coaching days. Paul Andrews joins Alan Atcheson  as coaches to move forward the playing squads at second and third xv level.

Players leaving Bangor include Matty Agnew who has joined Ballymena and Curtis Stewart who moves to Queens along with Michael Pyper who has returned to Ballynahich.

Both Jamie Clegg and Dave Caughey have returned from long term injuries to take their place in the 1st xv squad.

The club continues to strengthen its link with Bangor Grammar as 14 players have joined the club for the new season.

For the match with Dungannon this week there are several players unavailable including Jamie Clegg, Dave Caughey, Mark Widdowson, Adam McCusker and Desi Fusco. Ryan Latimer is recovering from a knock to the shoulder with Andrew Shaw continuing to follow concussion protocols. Scrum half Allister Lockhart is rested this weekend with a groin strain.

The starting team includes front row of Captain Philip Whyte, Andrew Jackson, and James Leary with Lewis Stevenson and James Stewart in the second row. The back row includes David Bradford at No 8 alongside Glenn Burton and James Henley who has returned from a year in Australia.

In the backs Gareth Wright partners Gareth Millar at 9 and 10. Rob Gamble and Mikey Weir start in the centre with David Charles and former Sullivan winger Chris Jordan on the wings. Ben Webb starts his first game for Bangor at full back after performing for Campbell College in the Schools Cup last season.

The Bangor bench includes Charlie Clegg along with Bangor Grammar players Thomas Boyd, Martin Withers and Lewis Bret along with the talented Ross McCloskey. This match will provide the opportunity for players to stake a claim for a starting place against Tullamore on Sat week in the opening AIL match.  

Queens Uni v Belfast Harlequins

Rainey OB v Omagh

Has not been an easy start for both teams in their opening games with Rainey having lost against Bangor in the league and Banbridge at home in the Senior Cup. Recent additions to the Rainey squad include the talented Paul Pritchard and Josh McIIroy who played Div 1 rugby in the AIL last season. Head coach John Andrews is confident with a full squad available Rainey can mount a strong promotion campaign in Div 2B.

Omagh players received a warm welcome to Senor rugby when they suffered an opening day 36 – 14 defeat at home to Belfast Harlequins. It was a reality check for the players as they adapt to life in Senior rugby and the All Ireland league. Both these teams met at Hatrick Park in pre season game with Rainey winning 26 -24.

For the match on Saturday Omagh will be without the injured Mervyn Edgar and Lee Warnock with Lee Murphy, Alan Heaney, Ally Beckett, Richard Hemphill and Davy Thompson all unavailable.

The coach is having to go into this match with an inexperienced front row  but is otherwise good to go. He feels both teams should be a lot stronger than their pre season game three weeks ago. The match will be a good test for his young squad before they play Bruff in their opening AIL match.

  

MILLAR McCALL WYLIE JUNIOR CUP 1st RD

Ards v Ballymena seconds

Ballymoney v Academy

City of Armagh seconds v PSNI

Cooke v Omagh seconds

Dromore v Clogher Valley

Grosvenor v CIYMS

Larne v Ballynahinch seconds

Limavady v Randalstown

Lisburn v Carrickfergus

Ballyclare, Instonians Enniskillen and Portadown received a bye in 1st Rd as the four Ulster qualifiers to play in Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup this season. Other teams to receive a bye in the 1st Rd draw included Banbridge seconds, Coleraine and Malone seconds.

Dromore v Clogher Valley

Interesting to see how these two teams have performed in their opening two league matches. Dromore went down 48 – 32 to Ballyclare two weeks ago and recorded an impressive 32 – 14 win over Portadown at home last Sat.

Clogher Valley lost their opening league game 23 – 17 at home to Cooke and suffered a 26 – 12 defeat at Coleraine last week.

Talking to Dromore Director of Rugby Jeremy Ogle. He has been delighted with the opening performances. Players brought in by Dromore this season include Clark McLeod and Adam McElwee (Friends School Lisburn), Dave Smith (City of Derry),Marty Follis  (Lurgan), Fraser Mulholland (Banbridge) + several players from Dromore High School.

Players out: John Russell (Dungannon).

Dromore scorers v Ballyclare : Tries Adam McDonald (2), Brian McClearn and Lee Steenson one each with Lee Steenson kicking 14 points.

V Portadown: Tries Adam McDonald, Brian McClearn, Ryan Cobb and Adam McGregor one each with Lee Steenson again kicking 12 points.

The Dromore coaches were very pleased with performance against Portadown. Selection to be finalised for Clogher match on Sat. Adam McDonald ruled out with a knee ligament injured and will be replaced by Dave Smith at full back.

Talking to Clogher Valley Forwards coach Davy Black: The opening league match against Cooke was points lost with Clogher kicking  aimlessly to allow the Cooke winger Andrew Pollock to run the ball  back at his team. Before Clogher realised it they were 17 points down after 10/12 minutes. When Clogher settled they restricted Cooke to scoring six points in the remainder of the game. Unfortunately Clogher could only score 17 points in reply to lose the match.

Last week at Coleraine, Clogher were missing seven experienced players including Philip Hopper, Kyle Cobane, Eugene McKenna, PC Falconer, David Sharkey, Fleming Agnew and Captain Michael ‘Mixer’Treanor. In total Clogher had five debutants playing against Cooke. These debutants were sent to Coleraine where they put in a very spirited performance before losing 26 – 12. What was pleasing for the coach was the performance by the seconds who won 24 – 10 against City of Derry seconds. The coach felt if his team had a bit of luck at Coleraine they could have won. Unfortunatley Clogher won’t have talented centre Toby McAlpine available all season due to his studies in England. The young centre scored a superb individual try after evading several would be tacklers at Coleraine. Another young player heading to England is Dillon Crawford the former Portora pupil who has also impressed early season.

One area the coach is working on is the development of Neil Trotter into an established out half after two seasons playing at 9 and 10 in Div 1.

Clogher did lose their talented full back Philip Wilson who moved along with former coach Glen Kyle to Ballynahinch.

Talented second row Eugene McKenna  done his ACL at the end of last season and will be out for 12 months.

For the match at Dromore this week both David Sharkey and Fleming Agnew are expected to return to the starting xv. New NZ Head coach arrives at Clogher Valley on the 16th September. His arrival is eagerly anticipated by the players and club officials.

Grosvenor v CIYMS

For the rugby neutral the venue to be at this weekend is Gibson Park where East Belfast rivals Grosvenor and CIYMS will battle it out for a place in the next round of the Junior Cup. Grosvenor have made an impressive start to their season with opening league wins over PSNI 49 – 0 and Academy 32 – 17.

CIYMS lost their opening Conference league match at Ballynahinch against their seconds 44 – 11 and went down in a highly entertaining game against league leaders Ballyclare 37 – 19 last week.

CIYMS secured promotion to Div 1 last season after finishing one point ahead of their Belfast rivals with Grosvenor favourites for promotion this season.

Grosvenor Head coach Robert Ford is pleased with his teams start to their league campaign. Early season slip ups cost them promotion last season. His view of the opening matches was that his team caught the PSNI cold from the start and built up an early lead. As the game progressed the PSNI became more competitive. They have a big pack and some talented backs. The Grosvenor coach expects the PSNI team to be more competitive as they adapt to life in Div 2.

In the match against Academy, Grosvenor picked up early injuries to second row Peter Dawson and winger Colin Millar that disrupted the team, allowing Academy to build an early lead. He felt his team showed a lot of character to come back and win the game. The early disruption was a bit of a shock to the players. Academy were abrasive and physical with their big pack posing problems despite missing  a number of players.

New additions to the Grosvenor squad include Stuart McIIwaine, Michael Boyd, and Mark Foster from (Queens), William Rea (Ballyclare),  Stuart Smyth returning from studies in England along with several players from Grosvenor Grammar School including Ryan Ashfield who scored two tries on his debut against PSNI and Jack Kennedy who played against Banbridge and PSNI.

With several cricketers due to return in the coming weeks including Peter Davison, Adam Skelton and Mark Johnston the coach is hoping to have a full squad at his disposal. He still has a couple of new additions to come in to add to the squad.

CIYMS Head coach Gareth Fry has acknowledged his side has had a difficult start to their season with two defeats. However his side have played some really good rugby as they adapt to playing for the full 80 mins. Div 1 is a really competitive league as the results have already shown with his players under no illusions that it will be a tough season. We are however looking forward to getting a full strength team out for the Grosvenor match and playing to our full potential.

New additions to the CIYMS squad this season include Cory Tipping (Malone), Rob Haldane, Stephen Gilliland, Matthew Kilgore, Craig Devlin, Ruari Meharg and Daniel Kealey.

KUKRI ULSTER RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP DIV 3

BHSFP V Lurgan

Civil Service v Newry

Donaghadee v Letterkenny

Monaghan v Donegal Town

Strabane v Holywood

Virginia v Cavan

Results from Under 20 matches played on Wednesday 6th September 2017

Ballymoney 31 Rainey OB 26

Coleraine 43 Ballymena 14

Limavady 43 City of Derry 10

There will be a number of clubs disappointed I have not been in contact with them this week. Several did not respond to my calls. As I said I hope to catch up with all the remaining clubs in the coming weeks. If you want to e mail me about what is happening in your club please contact me on my mobile 07849071514 or e mail me on  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Thank you for your support.

George