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'Friends for life': Ballynahinch's 2009 Grand Slam heroics will never be forgotten

 

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Silver delight: Ballynahinch captain Stuart Lamb lifts the AIB Cup

Silver delight: Ballynahinch captain Stuart Lamb lifts the AIB Cup

Get in: Ryan Bambry and Nevin Spence hail First Trust Senior Cup joy

Get in: Ryan Bambry and Nevin Spence hail First Trust Senior Cup joy

John Gunson

John Gunson

Mandatory Credit Darren Kidd/Pre

Silver delight: Ballynahinch captain Stuart Lamb lifts the AIB Cup

For a small part of County Down, talk of the 2009 Grand Slam conjures no memories of the Millennium Stadium.

 

It's got nothing to do with Ronan O'Gara's dramatic drop goal, Tommy Bowe streaking clear for a momentous score, or the golden generation led by Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll finally ending a 51-year wait for a Six Nations clean sweep.

It was a story authored by the likes of Stuart Lamb and Ryan Bambry, men for whom the 2009 Grand Slam means the unforgettable run when the first XV of erstwhile junior club Ballynahinch won every competition they entered, an incredible feat that heralded their unlikely rise to the top tier of the All-Ireland League and status as the most successful Ulster club of the modern era.

While the historic quadruple was clinched in mid-May with victory over UCC to claim the silverware on offer from All-Ireland League Division Two (now 1B), the most impressive individual feat among the four trophies was surely the AIB Cup lifted a month prior.

No side outside of Munster had ever lifted the cup that pitted the best of Ireland's club teams against one another. And few would have given Hinch hope of breaking that duck coming into the season, not when the route through the competition would see them play four teams from the top tier.

Having already lifted the Stevenson Shield in Ulster, though, the side were on a roll when accounting for Galwegians, Shannon and a fine Garryowen side in reaching the final where they'd meet a heavily favoured Cork Con that contained the likes of future Ireland internationals Peter O'Mahony, Simon Zebo and Billy Holland.

Club stalwart John Gunson was to begin on the bench that windy afternoon in Athlone. Head coach Derek Suffern, assisted that season by Brian McLaughlin and Dan Soper, preferred Chris Napier and Gareth Rourke in the engine room.

"I was on the way out at the stage of the Grand Slam," recalled the reliable lock who remains a rugby coach at Down High School. "Well, I was at the end of my career on the firsts anyway.

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John Gunson

John Gunson

Mandatory Credit Darren Kidd/Pre

John Gunson

 

"I'd started with Hinch back in 2002. I'd just finished studying at university at that stage and my friend Tim Morton, we'd played together in Newcastle, was at the club and said a year over in Northern Ireland would be a bit of a challenge.

"I thought to myself, 'Why not?' He asked me to come out and play for a season and I've been here ever since. I've never looked back really.

"I loved it right away, it was a special time in the All-Ireland League. The club was going well and really enjoying themselves.

"I didn't know anybody and ended up making friends for life, travelling all over Ireland.

"They were real clubmen, all just playing rugby together and enjoying it. We'd get on the bus and go, two-night trips down to the likes of Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford. It was great."

There was a sprinkling of Ulster talent in the side too. Willie Faloon was a key figure while the province's former captain Andy Ward had begun the campaign back at the club where he first arrived in the mid-1990s only to break his arm in mid-season.

There was, too, the 18-year-old Nevin Spence who would sprinkle crucial scores throughout the unforgettable campaign.

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Get in: Ryan Bambry and Nevin Spence hail First Trust Senior Cup joy

Get in: Ryan Bambry and Nevin Spence hail First Trust Senior Cup joy

Get in: Ryan Bambry and Nevin Spence hail First Trust Senior Cup joy

 

Spence started on the bench for the AIB Cup final though, alongside Gunson.

When the latter was called into the fray, the underdogs held a slender lead of 10-6 thanks to Michael Graham's try and work from the tee by Bambry but Gunson was the man to make sure of victory, crashing over with the clock gone red.

"It wasn't a fantastic try, let's be honest," he recalled. "We shouldn't talk it up too much. I know that's not what anyone wants to hear but I was literally a metre out, picked it up and fell over.

"I basically stretched my arm out and that was enough to get it down. But it was a great feeling all the same, to seal the game."

As the team pulled back into Ballymacarn Park at 11pm that night, their unexpected success was far from the end of the story that season. They'd go on to secure the Senior Cup by beating Ballymena at Ravenhill, promotion, and the Division Two title. Plenty more victorious teams have made the journey up the Mountview Road since but that April afternoon in '09 will be a day forever remembered in the club.

Surely scoring such a key try in the side's history must still be worth a bit of currency today? Not as much as you'd think.

"Well, Maurice Irvine gives me dog's abuse to this day," Gunson laughed of his Down High colleague. "I was in a shirt that was far too small for me. He tells me that he couldn't see the try, he could just see my belly."

Belfast Telegraph