Ards Rugby Football Club has been in continual operation since its foundation in 1928. There is no question but that it has been sustained through its close connection with Newtownards' rugby playing grammar school Regent House. It has never been, however, a former pupils club as such. It is, and always has been, completely open to the community at large and has benefited accordingly.
It is probably the single biggest sporting organisation in the Ards area in so far as active participation by adults and young people in structured team competitions week in week out is concerned. Ards currently turn out 4 adult sides and 4 youth sides on a regular basis in official League and Cup competitions. Mini rugby, involving well over 100 children in the 7 to 11 years of age group, is also actively promoted on a weekly basis.
Ards 1st XV of course, play at Senior level, in Div 3 of the AIB All-Ireland League and in the Ulster Senior League, the only team to do so in the entire North County Down area. Ards play at Lansdowne Road, Newtownards.
Ards was founded when 40 people attended a meeting in Newtownards in response to a local press notice signifying an intention to form a rugby club. And formed it duly was, with an application following to the Northern Branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union for membership of the Minor League which was in turn accepted.
The first recorded game was against Kings Scholars (the Stranmillis Teacher Training College side) in March 1928. Ards then played their first League game on 19th Oct 1928. Visitors to Ards for this historic occasion were the Second XV of Cooke. Ards registered a narrow win 5 points to 3. The team went on to win their section of the Minor League, earning them a Ravenhill appearance in the League overall play- off final, regrettably for Ards a defeat at the hands of a Malone 3rd team.
Ards rugby is well underway at this stage and the club trundles along as a gentle little provincial entity enjoying a modicum of success primarily in the middle and lower levels of Ulster Junior rugby. The first significant breakthrough was the winning of the Towns Cup in the traditional Easter Monday Ravenhill Final in 1962. The names of the members of that side are firmly etched in the Ards roll of honour. David Coffey, Sam Kielty, Billy Heron, Gordon Kennedy, Bobby Haslett (Capt), Billy Shaw, Bert Jordan, Raymond Hodgkiss, Ken Halliday, Wilgar Whiteside, Eric Gourley, George Ferguson, John Dalzell, George Hunter, Bobby Bishop.
After that success, it was gradual progress. In 1966 Ards were promoted for the first time to the top section of the Ulster Junior League following two successful seasons under the respective captaincies of John Dalzell and Ivan Coffey, both of whom are still actively involved in club affairs. The late 1960s were significant too, from the standpoint of facility development. Having played for nearly 40 years at its headquarters- indifferent playing pitches and somewhat primitive changing accommodation, the club moved in 1970 to its present Hamilton Park location. The complex now houses a pavilion, a clubroom and four full scale playing pitches, the main one of which has high quality floodlighting. It was appropriate that the new grounds were named after John P. Hamilton. Having joined Ards in 1933, John maintained an active relationship with his home town club for over 70 years until his death. He had occupied every significant administrative position. His imprint was left not only on Ards rugby, but on Ulster rugby in general. He served for 40 successive years as an Ulster Branch Committee member, contributing with distinction to all aspects of administering the game at central level. He received due recognition when he was made an Honorary Life Vice President of the Ulster Branch. Eternally associated with John P. Hamilton through lifelong services to Ards rugby must be the names of the late Sam Orme, Andy Wilson Moore, Eric Gourley, Raymond Long and David Rainey.
By the mid 1970s Ards had become the dominant force in Junior rugby in Ulster, to the extent that serious aspirations for Senior status were being entertained. Players of the calibre of Will Barker, Clarke Millar, Teddy Sloan, Ian Fraser, Wesley Campbell, John Armstrong, Trevor Haslett, Derrick Nash, Barry Calvert, Ian Wallace, Reggie Haddock, Mervyn Lappin and the formidable backrow players Neville Edgar, Denis Calvert, Crosby Cleland and a youthful Nigel Carr deserved a wider stage to perform on.
And they got it. A glorious 1977/78 season, in which success was enjoyed by all 7 teams the club was now fielding, saw Ards clinch promotion to Ulster Senior rugby under the captaincy of the redoubtable Denis Calvert, with former captain and current club secretary Billy Dickson as 1st XV coach. The transition to Senior rugby was not easy, but season by season Ards were consolidating their position. Prop Barry Calvert was the first Ards player to play in all of Ulsters games in the 1979/80 season and the first to gain an Irish trial.
A significant development took place in the 1981/82 season with the appointment of David McMaster as 1st XV coach. The incomparable D.A. (as he is universally known) had already established himself as a leading Schools coach having been in charge of Newtownards Regent House School rugby for some years. Through his insight into developments in the game, his judicious exploitation of individual skills and strengths, his sheer dedication to his squads preparation and the confidence which his charges reposed in him, Ards 1st XV were fashioned into a potent force. It is not surprising that D.A.'s credentials earned him due recognition through his appointment in 1992 as Ulster coach in which capacity he took Ulster to three successive Inter-Pro championships.
The big breakthrough season was 1983/84. Following a pre- season tour to Canada- the club's first overseas trip- Ards under the captaincy of the irrepressible Teddy Sloan won a series of Ravenhill matches to secure the Ulster Senior League title. They went on to dominate Ulster rugby in the following years winning the Ulster Senior Cup in 1984/85- just missing out on a league and cup double- taking runners up position in 1985/86 and bringing the Senior Cup back again in 1986/87. Leading the side as captain in 1986/87 was a young Brian McLaughlin, now occupying the Head Coaching role with Ulster, following many successful years as coach at RBAI and Irish skills coach. Nigel Carr and Philip Matthews were featuring on the International stage and Ards representation on the Ulster side was becoming commonplace. Indeed Carr, Matthews and centre Ian Moles were members of the Ulster team that defeated the touring Auzzies at Ravenhill.
It was clearly going to be difficult to sustain the level of success enjoyed in the 80s and Ards just lost out on a place in the inaugural All-Ireland League. This had a curtailing effect on recruitment, indeed retention of layers. However, Ards were provided with a new dynamic when the All-Ireland League was extended in 1993/94 to include all Senior clubs. The challenge was accepted with relish and Ards under the captaincy of Cyril Stocker just missed out on promotion to a higher division in 1997.
Despite valiant efforts by captains and coaches, progressive decline set in and Ards position as a senior club was placed in jeopardy. Its tenuous hold was lost in 2001. In consequence, the club embarked on a development scheme with 3 component parts
-continuing infrastructural improvements at Hamilton Park
-consolidation and expansion of an already firmly established youth structure; and
-provision of enchanced coaching, medical and physiotherapy services for players.
There was an innate belief that Ards had and was developing through its youth system, the playing resources to compete again at Senior level. It was a matter of acquiring the right personnel to nurture and exploit them.
And that came in the person of Mervyn Tweed as coach. Mervyn had not had any particular association with Ards up until his introduction as coach in 2001/02 season, although he had been an interested resident of the Ards area for some years. He had no problem, hence, in assimilating the Ards ethos and applied himself with vigour, to his coaching responsibilities. His infectious enthusiasm, his committed pursuit of achievable objectives, his innovative training programmes and his facility for communication have reaped dividend for Ards. In consort with a youthful captain Michael Creighton (at 20 years of age the youngest captain since Blair Mayne and the first captain to captain Ards 1st XV for 3 consecutive years), Mervyn Tweed steered Ards back to Senior rugby within a few years.
The drama of the 2002/03 season would be hard to replicate. Dramatic end of season winning of the Ulster Qualifying League and then the nail-biting finale of All-Ireland round robin engagements along with the recapturing of the Towns Cup. A key recruit this season was Dave Dillon, a star player who never took a backward step.
Div 3 of the League is a highly competitive environment to which Ards have adjusted reasonably comfortably through Mervyn Tweed's marshalling of the club's own player products and judicious recruitment. On their return to Senior rugby Ards contested the Div 3n championship final at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, on a memorable day in May 2004. It was a fitting reward for a squad of young homebred talent, albeit buttressed by a few sturdy imports including Stewart Paul the young outhalf playing fullback that day who scored a try on the famous ground and our New Zealand friends Nopera Stewart, Simon Devoy, Joe Edwards and Mark O'Shaughnessy, our South African friend Ryan Fisher and the old Irish international Davy Tweed. Mervyn had been receiving the wholehearted support from Robin Johnston, the quietly efficient manager of the 1st XV squad's welfare and week to week logistical affairs.
Mervyn and his managerial team stepped down at the end of 2008/09 season and the club appointed former player Cois Beukes as Head Coach, ably assisted by Roy Lawton and David Irwin. We wish them well with their Ards futures!!
Good luck boys