ST. Patrick’s Day 1972 saw Ballymena Academy 1st XV win the Ulster Schools Cup for the first time in the school’s history - and on Friday night a 50th Anniversary Reunion dinner took place in Leighinmohr Hotel in Ballymena to officially remember the occasion.
The team were joined by many comtemporaries from those schooldays.
The Academy side from half a century ago was - Bill Wray, David McKelvey, Lester Davidson, David Montgomery, Nigel Orr, Adrian Goodrich, Wilbur McDonald, Ian Houston, Norman McConaghie, Brian Aiken, Trevor Montgomery, Walker Rainey, John Montgomery (captain), Colin Robinson, David Mawhinney.
On Friday evening the members of that victorious 1972 side met up as a group again for the first time since that famous day.
One member, Brian Aiken, came all the way from his home in Munich to join his old colleagues while captain John Montgomery arrived from England where he lives.
The other members made their way from various parts of Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, on a sadder note it was recalled that two people from that final had passed away - left winger Nigel Orr and respected coach Jimmy Boyle.
Nigel tragically passed away suddenly at his home outside Edinburgh three years ago while Jimmy died in 2020.
Tributes were paid by all the other players to both Nigel and Jimmy who were colleagues and friends to everyone.
Bill Wray spoke of Nigel and his contribution to the team and everyone rose to toast their much respected colleague
Captain John Montgomery, in his speech, paid his and the team’s tribute to coach Jimmy Boyle.
Without him, he said, the win and the style of rugby the team played would not have been possible.
A special bond still exists among the individuals of that Cup winning team.
One player commented that the “Band of Brothers were back together again.”
They agreed it had been a great evening, with old stories being told, and much ribbing and joking throughout.
Cup finals on thee other occasions
Meanwhile, despite having contested the final on three previous occasions (1924, 1928 and 1971) the County Antrim school had never lifted the coveted trophy, the blue riband of Ulster schools rugby.
Many of the squad from the side that lost the 1971 final were back the following year as they again reached the Ravenhill showpiece where they played Belfast Royal Academy.
The road to the final was not an easy one with Ballymena having to overcome Belfast “big guns” Campbell College and Methodist College at the quarter and semi final stages respectively.
The campaign began in January when in the opening round Academy were too strong for Wallace High School, defeating them 46-3 at home.
An away draw saw Ballymena travel for the second round to Omagh Academy where after a tough opening period they ran out 22-3 winners against their County Tyrone opponents.
The draw for the quarter final gave Ballymena home advantage against Campbell College. Incredibly Academy had never before beaten Campbell in a Schools Cup game at home but on this occasion they emerged ten nil winners in a close game.
In those days there was no neutral venue for the semi final and once again Ballymena came out of the hat first to set up a home clash against Methodist College. March 4th was the date for the eagerly anticipated encounter.
On a heavy pitch a see-saw game eventually saw Ballymena leading by six points to three before Methody came storming back with a try just five minutes before the end. With the game looking to have slipped from Ballymena’s grasp they were awarded a penalty for a Methody infringement in the last minute.
The penalty was converted by full back Bill Wray to draw the game as Academy lived to fight another day with the replay to come four days later.
Most experts believed Ballymena had lost their chance of reaching the final with Methody slight favourites to win the replay. But in perfect conditions on a dry pitch at Methody’s Pirrie Park ground Ballymena matched their opponents as both sides looked for the decisive score.
With only a few minutes to go, and the score level at three points each, Ballymena mounted another attack and as the ball was moved out along the backline centre David Montgomery became the hero as he cut through the Methody defence to score an excellent try and win the game.
There were tremendous scenes of jubilation by players and supporters alike with the Ballymena team celebrating a great win in the dressing room afterwards.
With Belfast Royal Academy victorious in the other semi final, the final saw the two teams who had dominated their age group right from Under 13 level paired in what promised to be a great final.
A crowd of 20,000 spectators filled Ravenhill on March 17 in anticipation and they weren’t to be disappointed as the two teams served up what was described as one of the best finals seen at the famous ground.
Ballymena set down a big marker early on as their front row took the first scrum against the head, a real psychological boost.
On a perfect pitch the fast Ballymena side played arguably their best rugby of the season and very soon they went ahead when right winger David McKelvey scored wide out on the right.
Adrian Goodrich converted and he soon added a penalty to give Ballymena a 9-0 lead before BRA pulled three points back just before the interval.
The second half continued in the same fashion as both sides looked to play fast open rugby.
Then midway through the half a good break by Ballymena centre Lester Davidson saw him find his centre partner David Montgomery who fed McKelvey and he raced away for his second try of the afternoon. Ballymena could sense victory now but BRA came back to score a late try to set up a tense final few minutes before the referee’s whistle brought the game to an end.
With supporters coming on to the pitch to mob the team, the overjoyed players finally were able to make their way up the steps of the grandstand where captain John Montgomery lifted the trophy.
As they gathered for the customary celebratory photograph afterward, everyone insisted that it couldn’t go ahead until reluctant coach Jimmy Boyle joined them.
Following a celebratory meal the players eventually returned to Ballymena. Suffice to say that a great evening ensued as the team and their coach Jimmy Boyle were welcomed and feted at Eaton Park, home of Ballymena Rugby Club.
The final step had finally been taken and the coveted Ulster Schools Cup trophy had at last made its way to Ballymena.