Ballyclare Rugby Club’s stand-in skipper Niall Lawther says the First XV squad is relishing the chance of having a crack at the Kukri Qualify Two title.
They boast a commanding lead over closest rivals Bangor, but while their form has brought a real buzz back to The Cloughan, Lawther insists no-one is getting carried away.
The pacy out-half says the squad will knuckle down and stay focused on the remaining five games, which will prove crucial in determining if they end up getting their hands on the silverware.
“It’s been a good season so far, although we still have a couple of vital games to go,” said Lawther. “The mood within the squad is great; we’ve been performing well recently but we know there’s still a lot of hard work to put in over these next two months if we’re going to win the league.
“We’ve had a couple of injuries, especially in the back line, but the depth within the squad has really helped us with guys like Michael Stevenson, Mark Weatherup, Robert Smith and Dave Clarke stepping up and putting in big performances.”
Coach Bob Young handed the responsibility of leading the team to the 20-year-old in the absence of regular captain Mo Finlay who picked up a knee injury. Lawther has proved an able deputy, helping guide the side to a memorable run of wins - the latest of which came with Saturday’s 52-14 bonus-point success over Randalstown.
“We knew it was important to get a bonus point in order to maximise our chances of winning the league. Conditions weren’t great, but we started well - something which we don’t do often enough - scoring three tries within 10 minutes.
“The guys in the pack all played really well, especially at scrum and ruck time, providing the backs with a good platform to run from. In open play, the backs and forwards linked well for a couple of quality tries,” he said.
Their next league outing sees them go head-to-head with Omagh (February 9), but match-ups with local rivals Larne and Carrick are on the horizon, while a crucial double-header with second-placed Bangor, who have two games in hand, also looms large.
“We’ll have to train hard over the next couple of weeks and take each game as it comes, but there is definitely a belief within the squad that we can do it,” he added.
“The two games against Bangor are going to be massive and will ultimately decide who will win the league. We’ll have to be at our best as we know they’ve had a good record this season.”
Ballyclare have lost just one league game during the current campaign and that was away to Enniskillen in September. So, what has been the key to their excellent form?
“Our coach, Bob Young, has been central to our success, as well as our ability to gel together when the going gets tough. Our back row of Willie Logan, Michael Rainey and Gary Weatherup have consistently played well and have been crucial for us this year.”
He added: “I know over the past couple of years Ballyclare have just missed out on promotion, so the team will be relishing the opportunity of winning the league title this season.
“For me, personally, it would be amazing! I’m excited for the next two months. We will train hard and give it our all.”
This weekend Ballyclare’s attention switches to the Towns’ Cup and the visit of Donaghadee, who occupy third spot in Qualifying One.
Report by John Gillespie | @Times_Sport