Welcome to Ballymena RFC @ Eaton Park – Est 1887

Mr President and Members

I’ve had the benefit of reviewing the outgoing Honorary Secretary’s Report presented at the last AGM on 20th May 2019. Whilst the Club’s on-field fortunes for that season were mixed, with the 1st XV suffering relegation from AIL Division 1B to 2A, it is obvious that the finances had turned a corner so that:

  • for the first time in years the Club was debt-free;
  • through the Chairman Peter Crabbe’s initiative and drive, sponsorship had increased by a factor of 5; and
  • bar turnover had increased by 50%.

Let’s compare the position today. Ballymena Rugby Football Club has evolved in the interim 3 years to be almost unrecognizable. As you will hear the rugby during season 2021-22 was a resounding success, our other Sections flourished and cross community projects and external use of the facilities have proliferated.

Off the field I want in particular to highlight:

  1. The enhancements to the Clubhouse. Take a moment on your way out to survey the building from the main pitch. The bar roof, the new windows and the outside bar extension have in turn improved the aesthetics and augmented the entertainment offer
  2. The new kitchen and toilets upstairs
  3. The new gym housed in the former squash courts
  4. The mass of advertising boards – all paid for – which surround the main pitch and adorn the driveway
  5. The vibrant social and convivial atmosphere amongst the membership, at corporate lunches (undoubtedly the best in Ireland), throughout the Club, at external functions and in the bar which is now a go-to venue for the young adults of Ballymena and beyond;
  6. The fact that all of the enhancements have been financed from the Club’s resources, without the need for borrowing.

Turning firstly to Senior Rugby:

The 1st XV, ably captained by the evergreen Glenn Baillie, finished 4th in AIL Division 2A, the season concluding with a disappointing play-off defeat to Queen’s. I suspect that league position would have been taken at the outset by coaches John Nicol, Darrell O’Kane, Andrew Warwick and Timmy Small who have instilled in a hugely inexperienced and young squad a team spirit and camaraderie that I have not previously witnessed during my time at director level. It is highly regrettable but understandable that John is having to relinquish the Head Coach position to concentrate on his new post at Ballymena Academy, but I am comforted by the fact that our main feeder school pathway will now be restored.

Altogether the 1st XV fulfilled 24 fixtures, winning 13. They were denied first position on a technicality in the UBL, and lost in the first round of the Senior Cup to a strong Queen’s side.

The 2nd XV played on 25 occasions, winning 19 games. They exited both the Junior and Town’s Cups in the second round with narrow defeats respectively to Armagh and Ballynahinch. A hugely successful season culminated in the winning of the 2nd XV league in an outstanding performance against Ballynahinch on Friday 22nd April. Proud congratulations are due to my brother Gareth Fisher, the team’s Coach, whose efforts over the years have been recognized by the Club’s presentation to him of the Millar McBride Award, a gesture that he, but more particularly our father, has cherished.

The 3rd XV enjoyed a similarly impressive winning ratio, overcoming their opponents on 15 of 20 occasions. Having witnessed an outstanding victory in the Forster Cup semi-final I was disappointed not to have been able to attend the nail-biting victory in the final on Hegarty’s against Ballyclare, due to an unfortunate diary clash – a corporate lunch.  Very well done from all of us to Stephen Shaw (a genuinely hard-working Clubman) and his men.

The 4th and 5th XVs each won approximately half of their fixtures with Chairman Crabbe’s Select missing out on their perennial day out with a semi-final defeat to Ballynahinch in the McCambley Cup.

Notable mentions are due to:

Ben Moxham, now an established member of the Ulster Senior squad

James McCormick (Ulster Academy and Ireland U20)

James McNabney (Ireland U19/U20)

Paddy Browne (Ireland U19)

James Wright (Ireland U19)

and of course to the 1st XV management team of Glen Boyd and Matthew Irvine and the medical team of Dr Andy Cass, Ian McIlfatrick and Cameron Steele.

The Women & Girls Section was chosen as one of five clubs to work alongside Ulster Rugby as part of the IRFU Women in Rugby Action Plan in recognition of the growth over the last five years, with Women & Girls Rugby thriving through the local schools and social media. This has had a big impact on numbers in U12s and U14s in particular. The new younger members numbers are increasing regularly and augers well for the U16s, U18s and Senior Women in the next two years.

 This season there were just under 130 girls registered, from 27 in the U8 Scallywags through to 16 Senior Women and there are 27 qualified coaches across the age grades. 

The U10s and U12s took part in every ‘Let’s Play Events’ which was organised. A couple of ‘Friday Night Lights’ friendlies with Ballymoney took place at Eaton Park and a good relationship between the two clubs has been built. The girls participated for the first time this season in the Clubs’ Minis Festival which was a great success

The U14s took part in the new U14s League.

The U16s won the new U16s Shield. Unfortunately, they drew against Enniskillen and as Enniskillen scored the first try, Enniskillen went through to play for the U16s Cup. Our U16s won all their matches leading up to the final of the Shield. A fantastic achievement for a team only formed in November 2021. 

The U18s took part in the Super Series as well as the new U18s Cup. They were part of the Northern Storm team, a mixture of 10 clubs and in which the Ballymena contingent stood out. 

Aine Fraser, the Ladies and Girls Convenor, was invited to the International Women’s Day match at Kingspan as part of the Women in Rugby Action Plan, and was instrumental in setting up a group of clubs where Senior Women would get the opportunity to play matches against each other on a regular basis. As well as Ballymena Banbridge, Rainey, Ophir and Ballymoney are on board. The first two matches against Banbridge and Rainey saw Ballymena victories.

Congratulations to:

Seonaidh Douthart (Ulster U18s 7s Squad and Ulster U18s extended Interprovincial squad)

Sophie McAllister (Ulster U16s 7s Squad and Ulster U18s extended Interprovincial squad)

Jessica Wilkinson (Ulster U18s extended Interprovincial squad)

Christy Hill (Ulster Senior Womens’ squad and Ulster Senior Women’s extended Interprovincial squad)

The Women and Girls Section is currently hosting the Canterbury IRFU Give it a Try for 8 – 14-year-olds. So far, there are 17 new recruits, all very keen to join the Club. 

Aine has asked me to thank the Directors and the Club on her behalf for all their support this season. I in turn want to extend the Board’s thanks to Aine for her enthusiasm, commitment and drive. She continues to do an outstanding job in rapidly developing the Women’s and Girls Section and integrating so successfully in all aspect of Club life.

Our Youth Section continues to flourish. Last season we had 75 registered players at U14, U16 and U18 levels coached respectively by Tony Walker, Eamon Scullion, Francis Douthart and Peter Crabbe, Chris McClung and Simon Bracewell and Alistair Fraser, Nick Reid and Dougie Thom. The U14s lost to the eventual winners Rainey in the semi final of the Cup and lost the League final to Virginia. The U16s finished 5th in their league and exited the Cup in the second round to the eventual winners Coleraine. The U18s won the league and cup double, the latter a truly memorable occasion at Kingspan. It is heartening that 11 of the U18s are graduating to the Club’s senior squads next year. The season culminated in a highly successful dinner attended by the boys and girls players.

The Minis Section was very ably convened by Jonno Kerr. Over 200 rascals and minis regularly attended Eaton Park on Saturday mornings. Seven Clubs participated in the Mini Festival last month and as usual it was a highlight. The P7 Tour this year took in the Leicester Tournament where our boys acquitted themselves superbly.

I am reliably informed that a collective cheer rang out in March after what had been a long frustrating time for the Ballymena Bears.  They had remained active as far as they possibly could, running the virtual Bears Race Round Ireland in both January 2021 and 22, a fantastic event involving the whole club and certainly achieving its goals of getting people active and promoting team spirit.  So much so that the Bears were presented Disability Sport NI’s inclusive mainstream Club of the Year 2021 award.

The 2022 part of the season has gone well with strong numbers (upwards of 20) attending every session, along with a healthy spattering of new players all of whom proudly wear new shirts partly funded by Country Estates with training tops donated by Clarke Facades. 

2022 is the 10th anniversary year of the Bears. Gary Donald has asked me to convey a huge word of thanks to everyone around the club who has supported them thus far.  The blitz on Sunday 29th May at which 3 other clubs from across the province will attend (approximately 100 players) is in part organised to celebrate this Bears’ milestone. 

On behalf of the Directors I in turn want to thank Gary for the huge contributions he has made and continues to make to the Club.

The 2021 cricket season will long be remembered for one special moment but the reality is that the season was one of both highs and lows.  Alongside the high of an extraordinary outcome in the T20 Trophy final was the low of relegation for both the 2nd and 3rd XIs. 

It is impossible to overlook the extraordinary outcome of the Lagan Valley Steels T20 Trophy final against Cregagh, where, needing 35 runs from the final over, John Glass hit 6 sixes to win the trophy for Ballymena, a feat which attracted the attention of the media both locally and around the world! The league campaign meanwhile showed that the team, led by Jack Gibson, was competitive but results did not go their way and they finished the season near the foot of Senior League Section 1 but looking forward to 2022 with optimism.

As mentioned, the 2nd and 3rd XIs also experienced disappointing seasons, both finding themselves relegated, but the Seconds, in particular, were competitive throughout and will be keen to bounce back in 2022.

Another clear highlight of the 2021 season was the growth in youth cricket, a key focus for incoming chairman Trevor McBurney, with 75-80 young cricketers regularly to be seen at Eaton Park on junior practice nights. With a number of talented cricketers emerging from all age groups, and particularly large numbers in the under 11 age group the future of cricket in Ballymena looks bright. Special mention should also go to Stevie Bristow who was selected for the NCU U15 team that won the inter-provincial series.

The pandemic has put paid temporarily to the Ballymena and District Indoor Bowls League but our bowlers, some 18 in number, nevertheless continue to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the season which is due to restart in September.  Gary Shaw is the Section’s President with Ken Hutton Secretary and Peter Street Treasurer.

The Directors are once again most grateful to our main sponsors Galgorm Resort and Spa, and to all of the others who are now impressively too many to mention.

The Office Bearers have substantially remained in post since the 2019 AGM.

President Rodney Cole excels at entertaining guests from other Clubs, no doubt to the envy of those guests, and fulfills the role with the gravitas and elan which our great Club demands.

Chairman Peter Crabbe’s contribution to the Club at every level has been nothing short of sensational. The Club’s evolution, which I touched on earlier, is down in no small measure to his efforts. Being labelled a micro-manager is usually a criticism but not in Peter’s case: it is precisely his unstinting attention to detail which has driven the success. I was pleased to learn the other day that his enthusiasm is undiminished and that he still considers BRFC to be a work in progress.

Tom Wiggins stepped down as Honorary Secretary in October since when I have been trying to fill a large pair of boots on an interim basis. Only now do I appreciate how much of himself Tom dedicated during his term to the position and the Club. I want to thank Tom personally, and on behalf of the Board, for his years of service.

Responsibility for the Club’s finances has evolved to Keith Lamont, ably assisted by Mike Kerr. They have inherited a solid foundation built by Tim Roddy and Guy Simpson which was then finessed by Mark Foster – and by the Chairman’s frugality.

Jamie Smith has remained a constant as Director of Senior Rugby and this Club is a better place for that. Nobody in this room fully appreciates how massive a contribution Jamie makes simply because he does not talk about it. Suffice to say that, leaving all other aspects of his role aside, we appear to be retaining the vast majority of our 1st XV squad and indeed may be making a number of shrewd signings, all down to his standing in rugby circles, his persistence, his diligence and his pastoral attributes. I can think of no bigger Clubman.

Unfortunately Glen Boyd has, after much deliberation, decided to step down as Director of Community Rugby. His input will be sadly missed. I want to convey to him the collective gratitude of the Directors: he is another like Jamie who hides his light under a bushel, and to extend our condolences for the recent passing of his mother.

David McAleese, as Director of Grounds and Property, has a difficult task managing an unruly team of slabbers such as Noel Crabbe, Ian McIrath and Geoff Banks.  This place simply would not function, or look as well, without the unwavering dedication of those individuals, with more technical support now very helpfully and willingly provided by David Hamilton.

Eamon Scullion was Director of Sponsorship and Marketing until work commitments dictated his stepping down. The success of the Corporate Lunches is in no small measure down to Eamon’s persistence and hard work. On behalf of the members I want to thank Eamon for his service and am glad he remains an integral part of the Club.

Matthew Banks has assumed the role of Communications Director, following in the footsteps of Cormac McCamphill. The Club’s revamped website is a revelation and social media output is regular and informative. Thank you Banksy. I know things have been difficult of late.

Responsibility for directing Functions has passed to Richard Montgomery who succeeded Trevor Robinson. Down to the considerable efforts of both men, rarely a weekend now goes by without the facilities being used for both external and internal events which generate very welcome additional revenue. I also want at this point to take the opportunity to congratulate Richard and his team for the catering at the corporate lunches which has been unerringly superb, and to thank him for his efforts in feeding the players after training.  

Paul Smith has been fulfilling the Assistant Honorary Secretary’s duties of late, and his Board minutes are considerably more accurate and enlightening than mine ever were.

There are 6 members of the Club’s Board of Governors chaired by the President: Ollie Smith, Hector Deane, Andrew Ferguson, John Nicholl, Roger McBurney and Pete MacKenzie who take ultimate responsibility for the Club from a legal perspective.

The Club’s Ulster Branch representatives are:

Jonny Millar (Senior Committee)

Mike Kerr (Clubs Committee). Thanks are also due to Mike for fulfilling the difficult role of Fixtures Secretary.

Last, but no means least, I want to make special mention of the fantastic work of the bar staff and particularly Curtis Wylie and of course the Bar Convenor Andrew Ferguson, who undertakes what is effectively a full-time role without complaint. It is no mean feat keeping the glasses of the corporate guests and the post-match revellers, full at all times.

In closing I would like to thank everyone who has helped me in the compilation of this report for the season 2021-22 and Mr President may I, through you, now commend it to the meeting.