WHEN Mo Finlay leads Ballyclare out at Ravenhill on Easter Monday afternoon he will be aiming to bring the coveted Towns’ Cup to the Cloughan for the sixth time.
The club’s close affinity with the old trophy stretches back to 1973 when they contested the first of their nine finals.
That day it was a 58-7 thrashing by Ballymena, but it heralded the start of the golden age, when the White Hare men featured in no fewer than five finals in eight years.
The cup adorned the Cloughan trophy cabinet on three of those occasions, with wins against Rainey, Armagh and City of Derry, while losing to old rivals Ballymena for a second time.
This year’s final will be another Ballyclare-Derry clash, but this time with the Derry senior side competing in the All-Ireland League, it will be their seconds who will carry the club colours.
Bob Young’s Ballyclare have been going well this season, and may yet clinch the one automatic promotion place in Qualifying League Section 2. Having been in pole position for most of the season they were deposed recently by Bangor, but the two clubs have still to play each other in what promises to be a decider.
When attention switched to the Towns’ Cup after Christmas, Ballyclare started impressively with a 45-0 whitewash against Ards II; then followed victories against Donaghadee (8-3) and Dromore (27-3) before dumping out Omagh (19-13) in the semi-final.
The City of Derry senior side has an impressive Towns’ Cup record, having won it on 11 occasions, but this final will be a first venture for their seconds string.
They currently compete in the 2nd XV League and the Conference League where their combined record is six wins and six defeats, so the omens seem to favour the ‘Clare men.
Ballyclare have played expansive rugby this year and they are hoping Monday’s clash will give the impressive back line the opportunity to show off their attacking skills.
Following an injury to full-back Gareth Byers early in the season, Robert Smith has stepped up from the seconds to play a vital part in the club’s winning run. Centres David Clarke and Stuart Cusack have formed an effective partnership alongside wingers Mark Weatherup and Nathan Loughlin.
The younger Weatherup gained his place in the side following the successful switch by his brother Gary to a wing-forward role, and he has justified his promotion.
The half-back partnership of Colin Morrow and Niall Lawther is one of the best in Qualifying 2. Morrow has been a club stalwart for a number of years at scrum-half, and is best remembered for his winning score in the 2004 final against Coleraine.
Lawther has been stand-in skipper in Finlay’s absence and has starred in the number 10 shirt with Ballyclare.
Perhaps the key to Ravenhill success will be the performance of the back row trio - Willie Logan, Michael Rainey and Gary Weatherup - who consistently have out-gunned their opponents throughout the league campaign.
In previous seasons Weatherup was an automatic choice as winger, but since switching to wing-forward he has emulated the performances of his uncle, Harry Gaston, who was a club icon in that position, and was the winning skipper last time Ballyclare brought home the trophy nine years ago.
Logan represented Ulster Juniors on many occasions at number eight, and has continued to produce sparkling displays since moving across to flanker.
Current number eight, Michael Rainey, is a former Dungannon 1st XV captain, who has proved to be a big favourite with the ‘Clare support following his move to the Cloughan. The front five have proved to be more than a match for opponents throughout the league campaign.
Skipper Finlay has been out injured for several months during which his place at prop was taken by Rory Henderson, but recently he has made a successful return and came in as hooker following an injury to Andy Wylie.
Al Boyd completes a strong front row, while his brother Rob and Graham McKinstry also help make up a formidable front five.
The team is likely to be selected from: M. Finlay (c), N. Lawther, R. Smith, M. Weatherup, D. Clarke, S. Cusack, N. Loughlin, J.J. Baird, G. Byers, C. Gillen, C. Morrow, R. Henderson, A. Boyd, R. Boyd, G. McKinstry, W. Logan, G. Weatherup, M. Rainey, R. Hall, M. Stevenson, N. Moore.