In a small town with four secondary schools, friendly rivalries aren’t long in forming.
Around Bandon, Co Cork, the uniform gives you away. To be a teenager here is to run the gauntlet a few times a day; on the bus to school, wandering around town afterwards, on the sports fields.
Not everything is adversarial though. It’s all good-natured fun locally but there are firm friendships there too and when the outsiders come calling, the town can rally round with the best of them. Just ask Bandon RFC, who take on Navan in tomorrow’s All-Ireland U19 Cup final in Naas (kick-off 3pm).
Around three-quarters of the side attend Hamilton High School, which has a fine GAA tradition, with more recent help coming via seven players from Bandon Grammar, the town’s rugby and hockey nursery.
Recent rule changes in Munster rugby now allow B school players to also line out for a club; Bandon coach Dan Murphy explains the team’s unique flavour.
“They’ve been together since U13 and come up through the ranks; they’re very loyal to each other and the club.
“The guys from the Grammar who became eligible after they were knocked out of the Munster Schools Senior Cup would have played with the other lads years ago. They’d know each other socially around town and they’re good pals.
“We got through the qualifying rounds, the South Munster section, with the club resources, and then the Grammar guys came in after they finished in the senior cup. We told them they were more than welcome to come up but had no God-given right to be on the team. To a man, they’ve bought into our ethos in a major way.”
How did they get this far, on the cusp of becoming national champions? Without any big rush and with some patient goal-setting. They’d tasted success on the way up through the grades but required a couple of goes at pan-Munster competition, being whitewashed first time around in 2010 at U17 level before going down to Shannon in the U19 final last year.
Last month, they put aside that heartbreak to hammer Highfield 40-8 in another decider in the Mardyke sunshine, annexing their first Munster title at that level.
“The group came back together after the Shannon loss, and we asked them to set a goal: to win Munster,” says Murphy. “They were lucky, not many teams get to two finals, and they won through on the day against Highfield.
“Everything else from now on is a bonus. That’s no disrespect to the All-Ireland, of course we’d like to win it, but Munster was the goal. You have to beat the best to be the best there.”
The clinical manner in which they dispatched Buccaneers 19-3 in the All-Ireland semi-final as a howling gale blew through the Galway Sportsground suggested they’ve the heads for the big occasion. They know Navan will come at them but they’re focusing mostly on their own game. “Bandon is the oldest club in Munster, having been founded in 1882,” explains Murphy. “We won the first Munster Senior Cup in 1886. That team are history makers in the annals of the club, and that’s what these guys would be too if they can beat Navan.
“It’s been great to see the spirit in the town this week, places decked out in blue and white and people from all sports wishing us luck. It’s a small town, and whether you win at golf, soccer, hurling, football or rugby, people are just proud you’re representing Bandon.”
BANDON U19 (panel): O Healy, B Crowley, M Okafor, K Desmond, G O’Leary, C Mulcahy, D Healy, J Murphy, R Walsh, R Conway, C Jackson, K Hurley, I Walters, E Phelan, L Holland, B Hunter, C Barry, K O’Driscoll, L O’Donnell, G Robinson, D Coffey, M Beecher.