After a long battle with illness, Banbridge Rugby Club Past President Noel Chambers passed away on Sunday 19thAugust.
Noel had been a great servant to the club, both on and off the pitch, since his introduction to the game in the late 60s.
At that time he was playing for Seapatrick Football Club when a work colleague, Sam Vage, suggested he come along to training at Rifle Park. Coming from a family traditionally steeped in soccer, it was a big move for Noel at the time. But he enjoyed the training and within two weeks he had been selected for the rugby club’s Second XV. He was soon immersed in the oval ball game– and not just the game but the social side as well, which he always enjoyed.
Noel’s pace and footballing skills soon saw him promoted to the Firsts where he featured at either full-back or wing and by the ‘74-‘75 season he was a key player in the side that won promotion from Junior League Section Five. That marked a significant turnaround in the club’s fortunes after years of decline and since that season the club has made a steady climb through the ranks of Ulster and Irish rugby.
So Noel played his part in arresting and reversing that decline. And in 1978 his inspirational captaincy was a key factor in a Banbridge side featuring in a Ravenhill final for the first time in over 20 years. ‘Uncle Dudley’, as he was affectionately known, led the Seconds out against Lisburn Seconds in the final of the Harden Cup, with the banners around the pitch heralding the appearance at Ulster Rugby’s HQ of ‘Dudley’s Army’.
Noel’s contribution to the club didn’t end when his playing career came to a halt – far from it. He took on the role of Match Secretary for a number of seasons, enjoyed spells coaching at First XV and mini-rugby levels and, again encouraged by club stalwart Sam Vage, refereed for six seasons.
And in 1986 Noel was appointed Club President, a position he filled for three seasons. Nor was the role a meaningless sinecure. Noel was a hard-working President whose example encouraged others to make their contribution off the pitch. And his presidency was capped by the opening of a new pitch at the clubhouse, replacing the muddy slopes of the old Rifle Park with a facility which is now home to Division One games in the All-Ireland League.
And there is no doubt that it was the drive and determination of the President spearheading the fundraising efforts which saw the project come to fruition.
Yes, Noel was a real rugby man. But he didn’t restrict himself to that game. He still found time to play cricket for Millpark, captaining the side for two years in the mid-70s. And he was a 10-handicap golfer who served the Tandragee Club as Captain in 1998.
A great sportsman, yes, but more importantly Noel was always sportsmanlike, and the two don’t always go hand in hand. Sportsmanlike, meaning behaving in a fair, honest and polite way – that was Noel, a resolute competitor and an inspirational leader, but depending on the outcome he was as gracious in defeat as he was magnanimous in victory. And after the game Noel was always ready with that typical good-humoured banter of his to deflate egos or lift spirits as required.
And while golf may have diverted his attention for a couple of years, Noel returned to the sport he loved best, organising and cajoling a faithful band of Banbridge rugby supporters as they travelled round the country supporting their team over recent seasons.
And just a few months ago, and despite his failing health, Noel’s determination saw him take his place at Rifle Park for the All-Ireland League Division One play-off game between Banbridge and UCC.
One of Noel’s favourite lines was by W B Yeats:-
‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends.
And I say – My glory was, I had such friends.’
There’s an expression – ‘to have a friend you need to be a friend’. And Noel was indeed a friend to so many people. His many friends at Rifle Park will miss him dearly.