Jonny Hanna has come through the ranks at Ballymoney Rugby Club and has experienced highs and lows during this time.
Despite having to take a year out due to a knee injury and operation, the influential forward returned to action this season, notching up his 400th game for the senior squad.
Times Sport caught with with Jonny to chat to him about the changes he has seen at the club.
“I started playing my rugby in the youth section at Under-16 and Under-16 levels. At that stage we didn’t have an Under-18 side so I played for a couple of years at Ballymena Colts before returning back to Ballymoney in the 98/99 season when I played my first game in the Firsts. I played a couple of times that year and then the following season I was picked for the Firsts and I’ve been there ever since.
“At the start there were very few players Under-21 at the club, there was maybe myself and Barry Kirkpatrick who were playing in the Firsts. The others were mid-20s and it was really hard for younger players to make it in to the Firsts, they would have mainly found themselves in the Thirds.
“There’s no doubt the club’s youth development policy is paying off because we are getting some good young guys coming through and it’s a case of if you are good enough then you’re old enough to play.
“I’ve seen a lot of big changes with regards the guys’ fitness and the coaching they get now both at school level and at Colts.
“When I started there was maybe only a handful of guys would have done any additional training whereas now most players are doing their own strength and conditioning training as well as turning our for the normal Tuesday and Thursday sessions. You would still have had guys going out for a pint on the Friday night before a game but that has all changed. It’s a much more professional approach to the sport now and players are fitter and much stronger.
“When Jason (Taggart) took over in 2003/04 he brought a different ethos from Ballymena and at that time we were in Section 3 having been relegated and we concentrated on getting everyone one night a week, we then built up on it and now we have 40 out training every night.
It came as a great disappointment to many at the club when the Firsts were relegated at the end of last season.
“That was my third time to be relegated,” added Jonny. “To be honest it wasn’t because we were a bad side, it was more a case of circumstances with experienced players being injured or unavailable and we lost games we would have normally won.
“You find that at times with clubs, previously some of the older hands like John Waide, Sam Agnew had decided to step down and some of the Backs had moved away and we ended up being relegated from Q2 and we had to rebuild. That was 2003 and I was Captain and we got promoted but unfortunately we had players move on and we got relegated again.
“The next time we got promoted and moved up to Q2 and then up again into Qualifying One where we stayed until last season. However, the club is working hard to ensure we move back up again. I have returned from injury, James Clelland has also returned and there is a crop of talented young players. There are new coaches at the club and that brings a fresh approach and everyone is focused again.
“The club in itself is very strong. It’s also a very friendly club to be part of with a great ethos. Everyone pulls together and everyone knows everyone elses game.”
Having played 400 games Jonny has a few memorable moments but winning the Towns Cup in 2010 is the stand out one.
“The club had never won the Towns Cup before and when Jason took over in 2003 the biggest achievment was winning the Coleraine Floodlit Tournament. We got to a Towns Cup semi final many moons ago in the 70s.
“We then got to the semi final and were beaten by Coleraine in 2003 and got beat in another semi final by Enniskillen a few years later before we got to the final in 2010.
“That was just a brilliant day for the club, it meant so much to everyone involved. What made it more special for me was that I was Chairman that year as well as playing so it was a hectic time trying to juggle meetings and training. To win the Town’s Cup was the icing on the cake.
“That year we also started our Ladies team and got Club of the Year at the Ulster Branch annual awards which was a great acknowledgment for everyone who works so hard.”
Despite a serious injury Jonny is still going strong, notching up a few more games to add to his tally of 400.
“After going through the operation I wasn’t sure if I would be back playing but here I am. I’m enjoying my training and playing and there are so many new young ones playing and they bring a whole freshness to it and everyone gets on well and the craic is good.
“I also helped coach at Under-16 and Under-19s and its great to have worked with them and now I’m playing alongside them so it’s quite rewarding to see how they have developed.
“Everyone is still finding their feet this season and learning new things this season. We have new coaches with new ideas and they have started from scratch to rebuild the squad. I think the squad is good and if the guys click then I think we are in for a good season.”