Rugby country growing as Munster tyros shine

Fineen Wycherley’s dad is from Skibbereen, his mum from Bantry. Neither are what Micheal O Muircheartaigh would call traditional rugby strongholds but the Irish game’s heat map is showing up more red than ever in places long considered beyond the code’s accepted heartlands.
Rugby country growing as Munster tyros shine

Wycherley’s debut in the second row for the Irish U20s against Scotland last week is proof of that.

The Munster academy forward came to prominence as part of the first Roscrea side to claim the Leinster Senior Schools Cup in 2015, but his education began back home on the Beara Peninsula after his dad and a few others founded the Bantry Bay RFC underage section.

Their harvests since have been most productive. Wycherley’s younger brother Josh, who has followed his lead to Roscrea, played for an Ireland U18s side last year. So did Tadhg McCarthy whose dad Eugene is the community rugby officer in an area that didn’t have a proper pitch just a decade ago. Dylan Murphy lined out with the Irish U19s.

Add in Enya Breen and Yvonne O’Shea’s time with the national U18s sevens side in 2016 and what emerges is a picture of a shiny new production line for Munster and Ireland in an area where most allegiances have leaned towards a very different code.

“In recent years everyone is after putting a lot of interest into it,” says Fineen Wycherley. “There’s a lot of young fellas there pushing on underage with Munster so in recent years it has gotten bigger. The area was always GAA, really.”

He played a bit himself before devoting his time to the oval ball. For St Colums, he stresses, not the Bantry Blues. And there are plenty of other indicators that rugby in West Cork is breaking beyond the traditional parameters of the junior scene.

Dunmanway has gifted Darren Sweetnam to the Munster senior squad (via the Cork senior hurlers). Skibbereen moulded the Coombes cousins, Gavin and Liam, as well as Dave McCarthy. All are now in the Munster academy programme.

Bandon is another town to have mined a rich seam. It’s no surprise given the local club’s progress on and off the pitch and the presence for the first time this year of Bandon Grammar in the Munster Senior Schools Cup semi-final.

Take a step or two back and this is all just part of a wider picture.

The current Munster academy squad includes three players from Tipperary, another two from Waterford, as well as Wycherley, and this year’s U19s squad contains an encouraging mix of teenagers from old strongholds and newly fertile fields.

Every new seed is to be welcomed and nourished.

It’s only two years since Munster provided just four players to the Ireland U20s Six Nations squad. That rose to 11 in 2016 and 12 this time. The greater geographic spread clearly helps but other changes have lubricated the conveyor belt besides.

IRFU chief executive Phillip Brown has stated repeatedly that the four provinces will have to identify more talent and develop it at a faster rate in the race to keep abreast of the financially flush English and French clubs.

Peter Malone has been working on that. As Munster’s elite player development officer and forwards coach to Nigel Carolan’s Irish U20s, Malone is well positioned to give an overview of his province’s underage pathway and where it stands in the greater scheme of things.

“There are different cycles,” he said. “I do think that what we are starting to see are the fruits of a lot of hard work over four or five years now at this stage. We have probably put more time and work into our underage programme at Munster than at any time.

“Our U17s have been coming to talent camp for the last two or three years, our U18s and 19s are going through an intensive programme at LIT and CIT. Massive amount of camps and overnights and the schools in Munster have worked very hard the last few years.

“We are starting to see that come through as well. The Leinster schools probably have a bit more depth and a bit more investment and a wider volume of players but there is a pattern of guys coming out of school and being nearly ready for that senior rugby.”

Wycherley will continue to pave the path for more like him when he earns a second U20s cap in Italy tomorrow evening. All the signs are that there will be no shortage of candidates eager to follow.

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