Ballyclare Rugby Club is gearing up for a very competitive season under new coach Mike McKeever.
Last year, in their first season in Qualifying 1 following promotion, The Cloughan men were in contention for a place in the play-offs until the run-in, when they slipped down the rankings. This time round competition is reckoned to be even keener.
Old rivals Omagh have come up from Qualifying 2, while Ards have just come down from the All-Ireland League, and both are likely to make an impact.
Coach McKeever, who is Director of Rugby at Ballyclare High School, is looking forward to his first campaign at the helm and he has been putting his squad through their paces in training sessions.
Most of last season’s regulars are back again, but the squad has been boosted by the return of Niall Lawther, Stuart Cusack and Gary Clotworthy, who will all add punch among the backs, while wing-forward Gary Weatherup will wear the captain’s armband.
The White Hare lads have been fortunate to have home advantage in four of their first five fixtures. Their opening two match are against Bangor (August 29) and Portadown (September 5).
They have also been favoured with a home draw against Ards in round one of the Junior Cup on September 26. Ards will also be at The Cloughan the previous week for a league match.
Saturday’s pre-season friendly, played in three sessions against Coleraine at The Cloughan, ended in a 24-24 draw.
The Bannsiders bossed the first session, scoring a converted try and penalty to lead 10-0.
Weatherup’s lads turned things around during the second to lead 19-10. Dave Chambers opened their account with an unconverted try following a driving maul, while Paul Robinson put Ballyclare in front when he forced his way over for a score that Niall Lawther goaled.
In session three the visitors reduced the deficit to 19-17 with a converted try, before Mitchell McComb seemed to have clinched the win at 24-17 when he bored over for an unconverted score. However, Coleraine equalised with a score under the posts in the dying moments.
Ballyclare’s starting line-up: Stephen Baillie; Jonny Reid, Dave Clarke, Gary Clotworthy, Alex Ottey; Niall Lawther, Thomas McGookin; Al Boyd, Ross Scott, Dave Lawther, Robert Boyd, Adam Neill, Jordan McKinstry, Gary Weatherup (C), Willie Logan.
Saturday’s opening league fixture is against Bangor at The Cloughan on Saturday, kick-off 2 pm.