History was made in Armagh last weekend as the City of Armagh Rugby Club secured promotion to Division 1A, the highest level of the Rugby Union All-Ireland League.
The team sealed the deal on Saturday, beating University College Cork at home 24-20 to win the Division 1B League title, with one game to spare.
This huge breakthrough marks the apex of a legendary tale of a club that has had a truly remarkable development, having only returned to senior rugby in 2011.
Commenting on the day of the victory, Head Coach, Chris Parker, said: “It’s been a fantastic day for the club. The journey it has been on these past 12 years, from junior rugby to Division 1A is an unbelievable achievement. I am so proud of the whole squad.”
Evan Morton, the Public Relations Officer at the club, spoke to Armagh I about City of Armagh’s epic journey from their promotion to senior status over ten years ago, to reaching the peak in Irish Club rugby.
The story of City of Armagh Rugby Club’s senior rugby journey began back during the 2010/2011 season, when Armagh won the Junior League after pipping Belfast side Cooke RFC and gaining promotion into the Senior All-Ireland League. That year they were also awarded Ulster Club of the Year, which was surely a sign of things to come for the budding small-town club.
Evan says that Armagh’s debut in senior rugby in 2011/2012 got off to a strong start, with the club having progressed to having four adult teams. “Back at that time, there were 16 clubs in each league and City of Armagh finished a very credible 6th place in their first season. Remarkably, the team finished in 6th place for three years in a row. That’s what you call being consistent,” Evan laughed.
At that time, Armagh were in Division 2B, the lowest tier of the senior league and a long way from Division 1A. Due to restructuring by the IRFU into 10 team leagues, Division 2C was created in 2015, and in the same year Armagh bagged their first promotion, staying in Division 2B alongside Ulster clubs, Rainey Old Boys, Dungannon and Banbridge.
Evan added: “That year, we were also runners up in the Ulster Senior League, which was quite a good achievement for a club of our stature at the time.”
In the same year, history was made at the Club when they appointed the first female President in their history, Shirley-Anne Donaldson.
The following year, even more milestones were attained, as not only did the Club win promotion out of 2B, but they also won the Ulster Senior League for the first ever time in their history.
Evan credits this success to the Club’s strong youth policy, with the Under 18 boys winning a cup and league treble that same year. “That set the foundations for our younger players coming through to play for the senior teams,” he explained.
Evan describes the following season, 2017/2018 as “probably the most successful season in recent history with success for teams throughout the club”. The First XV secured promotion for the second year running, making their way into Division 1B.
On top of that, they also won the Ulster Senior League again and the Ulster Senior Cup for the first time in their history, narrowly defeating Ballymena in the final and once again City of Armagh was named Ulster Club of the Year.
In 2018/2019, the club made its debut in Division 1B and with five out of the 10 teams from Ulster, there were some terrific derby matches.
“That was another successful season for us,” Evan said. “We won the Ulster Senior Cup for the second year running and we also qualified for the final of the All-Ireland Bateman Cup for the first time in our history, which was a major achievement. Our Second XV won both their leagues while our u16s won a cup and league double. Firm foundations were being laid with our u14s completing their league programme undefeated. We had also seen our girls section expand through the hard work of our coaches and volunteers.”
Off the pitch, that year also saw planning permission granted for a major clubhouse redevelopment, and many years of fundraising was required to finance this.
By the 2019/2020 season, the club was in their second year in Division 1B and won the Ulster Senior Cup for a remarkable third year in a row!
The arrival of Covid saw a halt to rugby, but the club committee took a brave decision to commence building work on phase one of the clubhouse redevelopment, with a major extension that provided two new changing rooms, a lift for disabled access, toilets and a new entrance.
“This was a substantial development, which was funded 80% by the club itself and is a great credit to the members who worked so hard to make it possible,” Evan said.
After the pandemic, rugby returned to relative normality in the 2021/2022 season, with Armagh’s First XV finishing mid-table in 6th place.
This long, incredible 12-year journey came to a satisfying climax last weekend, with City of Armagh defeating University College Cork at home 24-20, completing an undefeated season at the Palace Grounds. The team won the league title with one game to spare, due to neighbours Banbridge holding nearest rivals Old Belvedere to a draw in Dublin.
This means that in the 2023/2024 season, City of Armagh will be competing in Division 1A, the highest tier of amateur Irish Rugby.
Evan believes that the story of City of Armagh Rugby Club is a “remarkable development”.
He said: “It’s been an incredible journey and credit to the coaches and managers in particular and especially the players who have been very dedicated and committed.”
2022/2023 was also the first season that Armagh managed to get allocated Ulster-contracted players, including Shea O’Brien, a homegrown Armagh boy. “Our four Ulster players were a big boost to the team although poor James McCormick missed half the season with a serious injury,” commented Evan.
“The club’s success is all down to our volunteers,” Evan said. “We have a very hard-working committee and over 100 volunteers across the board. Running a rugby club requires a lot of funding and we do a lot of fundraising. Every club in the country is under pressure financially due to huge increases in energy costs for clubhouses and rising travelling costs, but we’ve been able to cope and we’re reaping the awards on the pitch.”
Many will put City of Armagh’s success down to their strong youth provision, starting with a hugely successful minis section and the girls’ section in particular having grown extensively in the last number of years.
Former Ulster Rugby coach Brian McLaughlin was brought in as a consultant to assist with youth coaching and development, which has been a huge benefit to the club.
“It’s a real family club. A lot of the players’ fathers played for the club and now we see three generations, with grandchildren playing in the minis as well. We’re extremely cross community focused and we have children from up to 40 schools in the local region that come to our mini section, and those kids mostly stay and move into the youth section.”
Evan added: “We play an important role also in the local business community and we get a lot of help from our sponsors. Without their help, we couldn’t survive. Our main club sponsor, Taranto, is based in Tandragee and has been with us now for seven years.”
When asked if the club were looking forward to the challenge of staying at the top of Irish rugby, Evan said: “All Ireland Rugby is extremely tough and competitive and you don’t have any easy games.” He added: “When you’re travelling to the likes of Cork and Limerick, you certainly have to battle for every point. This season the guys have completed their league programme undefeated at home, which is a tremendous achievement.
“It’s going to be very challenging, there’s a lot of excellent teams there but everyone at the club is excited by the challenge. We’re delighted that we’ll be playing Ballynahinch as the only Ulster club in that league. It’s great for Ulster Rugby that there’s now two Ulster clubs in the top division.
“It’s great for Ulster Rugby and great for the City of Armagh in particular.”