RUGBY: Ballymena coach Andrew Graham looking forward to new campaign

Ballymena head coach Andy Graham
Ballymena head coach Andy Graham

Ballymena coach Andrew Graham says the Eaton Park club have their eyes on promotion in the AIL this season.

Graham’s men narrowly missed out on promotion from Division 1B last year and the former Ballymena back row forward believes his young charges will be in the mix-up for promotion.

“We have to be trying for promotion and that is what we are aiming for.

“If we come first we will be promoted by right and if we are in the top four we will go into a play-off and a team coming down from the division above.

“Our objective is to get as close to that top place as possible to get automatic promotion if we can - and if not at least reach the top four and go up through the back door of the play-offs,” he added.

And Graham says there are a number of teams in Division 1B that be a real threat to his side’s promotion ambitions.

“You have teams coming down like Ballynahinch and they are very strong. They are one of the top Ulster sides - like ourselves - so there will be big derby games there.

“You have other teams like Dolphin who are a good side and David Corkery has taken charge of them.

“And I expect Young Munster to be very strong and Old Wesley flattered to deceive a little bit last season as they started the season very well and then dropped off a bit.

“Shannon is being rebuilt by Marcus Horan and they are always a difficult side to play against.

“But to be honest you don’t really know till you get in to it and see how everyone settles.

“Teams have been recruiting and we have brought players in and some have been away with Ulster and a few of our guys have development contracts with Ulster.

“And a few of them are with the Academy set-up. So we are relying on guys being released back and if they are playing will for Ulster they will not be released back. That is just the way of it.

“But we have to develop our club players, so we can survive without them.”

And Graham - who coached Ballymena to the Ulster league title last year - says he is still disappointed that they missed out on promotion to 1A at the end of last season.

“We had a play-off with Trinity last year and we lost to them in that match.

“It was a big, big game down there and it went their way.

“They are an outstanding side and we had beaten them well at home and lost down there during the season but in that semi-final, if we had another two minutes we would have won the game.

“We had a really good season last year and now is all about building on that and I think we are a wee bit stronger this year so hopefully we can go a bit further.

“On paper we have a very strong squad for this season and if we can get it together is will be an exciting season.

“There is a real buzz around the club and in recent weeks there is a great sense of optimism about Eaton Park.

“There is a positive vibe about the place and that is very important if we want to go forward and achieve this season.

“We have a young squad but they are hungry to do well and there are not many guys in the squad that are over 25 years of age.

“We have a few experienced head but the younger guys are really up for it. Last season we won the Ulster League and got to the Senior Cup Final where we lost to Ballynahinch.

“We want to be challenging on all fronts and be a real force in Irish club rugby,” he added.

Ballymena lost in a preseason friendly on Saturday to Armagh but Graham says it was a valuable learning experience before the Ulster and All Ireland league campaigns get up and running.

“There were a few guys have been playing the seconds and the thirds and they all stepped up and did very well.

“It was pleasing to see the performance we put on as we had a few players missing and the Ulster guys were not involved either.

“We are building and it is a matter of getting through the next three or four games and getting ready for the AIL to get up and running. I am looking forward to the season ahead,” added Graham.