AIL 1998 REUNION
At Saturday’s pre-match lunch, before Banbridge took on St Mary’s in the All-Ireland League game, the Rifle Park club honoured the squad of 1998 which had featured in Bann’s first-ever game in the national league. The new CEO of Ulster Rugby, Jonny Petrie, was present to hear Club President Sam Grattan welcome the players, coaches and physio who had represented Banbridge in that first fixture against Ballina, with Bann having earned the right to their place in Division 4 by winning all three play-off games the previous spring.
Mark Waugh had captained the side to those play-off wins over Naas, Monivea and Midleton and at the end of that first AIL season Bann travelled to face Midleton again, this time to determine who would gain promotion to Division 3, with Waugh still leading the side. He recalled that second game against the Cork side as one of the highlights of his career. “It was a winner-takes-all game against Midleton, played on a glorious day and it was a real battle. We lost out in the end but we stayed on to share with Midleton their joy at being promoted.
“I think an important factor in us doing so well in that first AIL season was a tour to South Africa in the summer of ‘98. That was a big bonding exercise and we were a great bunch of friends. Most of us had no other commitments and we were able to concentrate on our rugby.”
Waugh recalled scoring the winning try in that play-off game at home to Ballina. “I didn’t score many tries – I think maybe only two for Banbridge – but that was a very important one as it got us off to a winning start.”
Since 1998 Bann have moved steadily through the ranks of Irish rugby, just losing out at the end of last season to UCC in the final play-off for a place in Division 1A, but laying legitimate claim to being the top Ulster side in the AIL. Had Waugh envisaged all those years ago that Bann would rise to such dizzy heights? “I probably always hoped it but I never thought that we would be pushing to be in the top ranks, up there with the Shannons, Young Munsters and Cork Con. It was just a major highlight becoming an All-Ireland club then and you could see how much it meant to the supporters and for the players it was just a major achievement to be honest.”
Some of those players are now helping out down the club, with Waugh himself one of the club’s mini rugby coaches, so passing on some of that experience gained and encouraging the latest crop of young talent.
Has rugby changed over that time since Waugh led his side into the senior ranks? “The style of rugby maybe has changed, but it’s still ‘pass the ball backwards and tackle’ – that bit has never changed. People say it’s a simple game but it may not always look that way to the outsider.”
The coaches who steered Bann to play-off success and guided them through that first season of senior rugby, Clive Bowles and Philip Mehaffey, were enjoying meeting up again with their former charges at Saturday’s reunion. Bowles recalled Bann’s legendary prop Dave Neilly having done his own warm-up in preparation for the final play-off game. “I’m told,” he said “that Dave did a lot of cycling and press-ups on the morning of that game – then he went out and scrummaged Midleton off the park.
“There was a vital point in the game when we were about to substitute full-back Mark Ferguson. Then I saw Robbie Ervine talking to Fergie and next thing Fergie came running through the Midleton defence to score the winning try under the posts.”
Mehaffey also recalled Neilly’s input, especially at the first scrum when he sent his opposite number five metres in reverse to set a pattern for the afternoon. “There was great camaraderie between the guys,” the former Ulster Junior lock recalled. “They had grown up together and played here for quite a few years and there was good experience as well. They were used to winning Qualifying Leagues and Cups so were well prepared when the chance of promotion came along.”
Bowles recalled that while there was plenty of experience in the side there had also been a healthy group of U-20 players in the squad and that mix of youth and experience had served them well.
Had the coaches approached that first AIL game against Ballina with confidence? “We had gained a lot of confidence from the season before,” said Bowles. “And then we’d done well in the Ulster League from September on so we thought we were well capable of holding our own.”
How did Mehaffey think rugby had changed over the 20 years since 1998. “We were still playing what you would call old-style rugby then. The game has moved on considerably over the last few years – it’s barely recognisable as the same game. And of course the amount of training and particularly the use of weights and conditioning is something different to what was done back then. It was natural strength, and farmers, that provided the muscle back then. Now it’s all more scientific.”
Bowles, who is now President of Portadown RFC, said that one of the reasons he came to Banbridge to coach back then was the potential that he identified within the club. “Once the players realised just how good they could be they developed a confidence to take any side on. There was good work going on at mini level and a good spirit around the club and that’s what makes a difference.”
Mehaffey said that it had been a 20-year march to where the club is now. “It’s all about keeping players coming through because every player has a rugby life expectancy, particularly at the top, so you always need to look at what’s coming through, particularly in under-age where it’s traditionally been very strong in Banbridge.
“You do get tranches of players coming through together and then you end up with a very good side and that’s what we’re enjoying at the moment with some very,very good Banbridge players in the current squad. And that’s history repeating itself because that’s what took us into senior rugby in the first place.”
Bowles said that there had been a good back-up group which had been important. “And then with Dan Soper, who was in that ’98 squad, now back as coach for a number of seasons, Banbridge has had that continuity which is so important.”