The Early Years
Ballymena RFC was first affiliated to the Northern Branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1887, but the Club as we know it today, began after the First World War, in 1922, and entered the Junior League in the1923-24 season, playing their games in the local Demesne. Within the next 10 years, they twice won both the Provincial Towns· Cup and the Junior Challenge Cup, and even competed, albeit with little success, in the Senior Challenge Cup. Some old Photos Below.
The Post War Era
At the end of the Second World War, the Club reformed, and were now playing at the Showgrounds, using the changing facilities provided by Ballymena Academy, whose Headmaster, the late W.H. Mol, had taken over the position of Club President.
Ballymena a Senior Club
After a number of successful years, which produced successive Junior League Championship wins in 1950-51 and 1951-52, an application was made to the Ulster Branch for admission to the senior ranks, and so, in the 1952-53 season, Ballymena became a Senior Club. Two years later, they moved to their present home at Eaton Park, then a modest 9 acres, which they had acquired from the Mid-Antrim Sports Association, and where other sports like Cricket, Tennis, Men’s Hockey and later Athletics, were being catered for. Only the first of these has survived, and continues to flourish as a very successful and thriving Section of the Club. The following couple of decades saw Eaton Park expand to 30-odd acres, and the erection of a pavilion, a function hall, training floodlights, a grandstand and a clubhouse with kitchen facilities.
After acquiring senior status in 1952, Ballymena had to wait ten years for their next playing success, winning the Senior Cup in 1962-63, benefitting from the leadership and superb place-kicking of captain Jonathan Moffett. This was followed by a number of lean years, which, however, still produced Internationals like Syd Millar, a past-President of the I.R.F.U., and a past-Chairman of the International Rugby Board, Barton McCallan and the legendary W.J. McBride.
In 1970, Ballymena blazed a trail in Irish rugby by appointing a principal coach, adopting a squad system and setting up a club coaching scheme, and the stage was set for the golden decade that was to follow, during which Ballymena were arguably the foremost club in Ulster and Ireland. They contributed many players to the Ulster Provincial side and to the Irish International team during this period, which came to a climax in 1980 with a major Club tour to Canada.
So far, Syd Millar, Bill McBride, Barton McCallan, Jonathan Moffett, Ian Dick, Jimmy Dick, Joey Gaston, Robin Gregg, Wallace McMaster, Ian McIlrath, Harry Steele, Trevor Ringland, Steve Smith, Philip Rainey, Brian Robinson, Gordon Hamilton, Derek McAleese, Jonathan Bell, David Tweed, David Humphreys, James Topping, Dion O’Cuinneagain, Gary Longwell, Paul Shields, Matthew McCullough, Andrew Trimble, Bryan Young, Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace and Ian Whitten have all represented Ireland and Ulster, and Syd Millar, Bill McBride, Trevor Ringland and Steve Smith have toured with the British Lions. Latest addition to the list of Internationals, Ian Whitten, won his first full cap during the Irish Tour to Canada and USA in Summer 2009.
After celebrating their Centenary in the 1987-88 season, Ballymena won Ulster League and Cup doubles in 1988-89 and 1989-90, and the advent of the All-Ireland League saw them placed in Division One, where they have remained except for a brief sojourn to Division Two in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. In December 1996, the appointment of ex-Springbok captain and coach, Nelie Smith, to the position of Director of Rugby, created a renewed professional attitude among the playing staff. An immediate improvement in fitness and style of play saw a third Ulster League and Cup double achieved, and the arrival at Eaton Park of a considerable number of quality players, wishing to avail themselves of the coaching skills of Smith. Two years later, just prior to a second major Club Tour, this time to South Africa, Smith was succeeded as Director of Rugby by his fellow countryman and prodigy, Andre Bester, who remained in the position for three seasons, during which time Ballymena contributed no fewer than 12 players to the Ulster squad who won the European Cup. The next Director of Rugby at Eaton Park was Tony D’Arcy, from Brisbane, who had played as a prop 10 times for Australia and 37 times for Queensland. Under his guidance the Club won the AIL Championship, defeating Clontarf in a most memorable final at Lansdowne Road in May 2003.
South African Steph Nel took up the post of Director of Coaching on 1st December 2004, on Tony D’Arcy’s departure to Australia. He had previously coached Connacht, and Rotherham in the English Premier Division. On receiving a very attractive offer to look after the Academy of the Western Province Stormers, Nel returned to his native Cape Town in July 2006, to be immediately replaced by fellow countryman Jacques Benade. Having been granted UK Residency, Benade had coached Malone for five years after arriving from Pretoria, and came to Eaton Park on a part-time basis with a 3-year contract. He has recently been succeeded by John Andrews, an ex-Ballymena player, who teaches in Ballymena Academy, and who also coaches their First XV.
As is necessary to survive in the present era of professionalism in rugby, over the past number of years Ballymena have negotiated a series of lucrative major Sponsorship deals, first with Clerical & Medical, then with Cable & Wireless, who remained Club major Sponsors for 6 years. They were in turn replaced by Michelin Tyre plc, and the present major Sponsors are the Patton Group, most appropriate considering the proximity of their Headquarters to Eaton Park. Michelin Tyre plc, O’Kane’s, Charles Hurst Group, Lafarge Cement Ireland, Clockwork Orange, White Young Green, Northern Bank, Ashgrove, First Trust Bank, Hilton Hotel, Walter Young Ltd., and Ballymena Borough Council are among a large number of subsidiary Sponsors of the Club, with Canterbury C.C., in association with Style ‘N’ Sport, the main Kit Sponsors.
Over the past number of years, the Club has made two major developments. First, with the assistance of a Grant from the Sports Council of Northern Ireland, a major drainage scheme was completed, and then a refurbishment of the Bar, kitchen and toilets, opened on April 29th 2006, has made the facilities at Eaton Park second to none, and ideal for a wide variety of social functions.
Ulster Senior Cup: Winners 11 times
Stevenson Shield (Ulster Senior League): Winners 12 times
Ulster League/Cup Doubles: 1988/89, 1989/90 and 1996/97
ALL-IRELAND DIVISION ONE CHAMPIONS: 2002-2003
All-Ireland League record:-
1992-93 9th. (relegated)
1994-95 2nd. (promoted)