Cookstown RFC have a big day out at Ravenhill in their sights as they go into the semi-final of the McCambley Cup against Ballynahinch on Saturday.
By far the biggest game of the season, the small Time Bar + Venue sponsored club will go into this, the biggest game of their season, full of confidence having beaten some of the best teams in their division on their way to the semi-final.
Co-captained by Liam Currie and Stephen Rea, Cookstown is a unique club with only one team and a very small pool of players, many without significant rugby-playing experience. Nevertheless, they have won their way to a hotly-contested semi-final place ahead of junior sides from rugby Goliaths like Malone, Belfast Harlequins and Ards.
“We are delighted to be in the semi-final,” Liam told the MAIL. “There was an element of luck in that our first round, third round and quarter-final were all played at home. It’s the first time the boys can remember getting a home fixture, but to get three left us delighted.
“We played Derry YM in the first round and a bye in the second saw us pitted against Inishowen in the third round. The Donegal men were runaway winners of their section of the Ulster Minor League and had a very physical and experienced team.
“We put in a lot of hard work in preparation for that game. We knew that they would come at us with their pack, driving mauls from lineouts and scrums. However, we actually dominated their pack for much of the game. The most pleasing aspect was despite going five points down fifteen minutes into the second half, the boys stuck to their task and we ended up winning comfortably.”
To date the team has tasted defeat only once, in the league away to Portadown in October, but it was in the cup that the Cookstown captains - both former Dungannon RFC players - really wanted to put down a marker this season.
“The quarter final was a tense, error ridden struggle against Carrickfergus,” Liam commented. “It was a war of attrition and we started off strongly but we continuously let them Carrick off the hook with unforced errors, and as a result we fell behind early on.”
Fortunately Cookstown managed raise their game and scored two tries shortly before half time. Errors once again became Cookstown’s undoing as Carrick levelled the scores ten minutes into the second half.
“The stalemate was broken when we were awarded a penalty following a break from prop Owen Mallon. As he has done so throughout the season, Paul O’Neill stepped up to send the us through to the semi-final.”
Cookstown RFC was formed in 1989 and in that year the club unsuccessfully contested the McCambley Cup final. Since then the club has been holding its own in the Minor XV Leagues. Over the last three years the club has made significant strides as far as participation and success on the field. In 2012, the team won its section of the Minor League and contested the Ravenhill Cup final, narrowly losing out to an invincible Ballyclare side.
That same year three players - Liam Currie, Ronan Campbell and Adam Stinson - featured in the Ulster Junior set up demonstrating that players can get representative rugby while playing for Cookstown.
“The club has a strong social scene which has seen two successful tours to Malaga as well as one or two legendary bus trips around the hills of Donegal,” Liam said. “We train on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and are always on the lookout for new men to come down and test themselves in the sport.”
In terms of Saturday’s opposition Ballynahinch, Liam is aware of the challenge that await his team: “We know that ‘Hinch have a very experienced team, they are called the ‘Evergreens’, a team made up of former first XV men and therefore they have a wealth of experience both in terms of playing rugby the ‘dark arts’ of the game.
“They have put together some fantastic results in their league and their cup run is impressive. These guys play to their strengths; they know what they need to do to get over the line, and their results have shown that they are good at that. Rugby is a great leveller in terms of age, more so than other sports like hockey, football and GAA. In rugby experience is invaluable so we are certainly up against it in this regard.
“Saturday represents another significant step of progression for this Cookstown Club. The game kicks off at 2.30pm at the Mid Ulster Sports Arena. All support will be welcome, and I would urge anyone who can to come out and support your local team who have been playing some scintillating, entertaining rugby this year – post match food and drinks will be available in Time Bar + Venue.”