How the West was won over to rugby country

In 10 years time, one wonders where Munster will be drawing players from.

How the West was won over to rugby country

The traditional power bases, the established schools and senior clubs, are likely to continue to provide a steady conveyor belt of talent as they have for decades into the professional system.

But, as the game grows in popularity and participation rates increase throughout the province, more players are likely to be harvested from more non-traditional rugby areas.

Both Dunmanway’s Darren Sweetnam and John Ryan, who hails from Berrings, near Inniscarra in mid-Cork, have emerged from areas that might be described as GAA heartlands.

The emergence of Sweetnam, for example, who joined the Munster Academy in 2012 and who today is, when available, a first-choice winger on the Munster team, has inspired other boys from the West Cork region to play for their province at various age-grades.

Darren Sweetnam’s success is an inspiration to other young players.
Darren Sweetnam’s success is an inspiration to other young players.

The success story of Bantry Bay RFC and the main school in the area, Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí, is evidence of the influence Munster’s success has had on the youth in the area.

Local boy, Fineen Wycherley, is currently in the Munster Academy and, though only 19, has already represented Munster at British and Irish Cup level. Skibbereen’s Gavin Coombes is also in the Academy.

Fineen’s younger brother, Josh, is another to keep tabs on but it’s clear that the Munster success story is having an impact, inspiring the current generation to not just play rugby for enjoyment but to aspire to play the game professionally.

Damon Urlich is Munster’s Community Rugby Manager. Originally from New Zealand, Urlich played for Midleton RFC when he came to Ireland and has always been impressed with the volunteer effort in rural clubs, particularly in West Cork which, coupled with the help of coaching officers from the Munster Branch, has helped to foster the game in the region.

Sweetnam’s breakthrough has shown what is possible for a young boy taking up the game in West Cork.

“It shows you don’t have to come the traditional route to make it,” says Urlich.

“I don’t know either would you call it a surge in interest in the game in West Cork since Darren’s emergence, but it’s growing down west. Bandon has always been a strong club.

"Clonakilty has been up at senior ranks and has come down again, Skibbereen has always been a traditionally strong junior club and Bantry are producing a lot of players through underage at the moment right through to Ireland ranks.

"In my mind, the country clubs, the rural clubs, the volunteer base I think is possibly stronger at times in some of these rural clubs.

"Volunteerism is waning in general in all walks of life, but down in West Cork, past players return to coach or volunteer as administrators and that’s helping to develop the players.”

The development of rugby in the Bantry area has impressed Urlich in particular.

“There are a number of good volunteers down there. Eugene McCarthy has done enormous work in Bantry and in West Cork to develop the game. He is a fulltime community rugby officer with us now. He, along with Ray Gadsden, have really driven things on in West Cork.

"There’s a thriving female section down in Bantry too. And two of Eugene’s sons, Tadhg and Paudie, have represented Ireland at underage level over the last couple of years.

“The two of them run the West Cork area between them. Bantry RFC does not have its own ground and players often have to travel up to the Mahon fields for their ‘home’ games. But Eugene shows what can be done with drive.

"Bantry, too, has a policy that an 18 /19-year-old in the club must come back and spend x amount of hours during a season coaching the younger kids. With so many players coming out of Bantry representing Munster, without owning their facilities, is a great achievement.”

Eugene McCarthy is at the heart of the development of the game in West Cork and he has seen noticeable development in the last six years in particular with a number of players making their way onto various age-grade squads with Munster and Ireland.

This Easter, five boys were involved with the Ireland U18s and three with the Ireland U19s.

“West Cork has become very strong in the last number of years,” says McCarthy.

“There are six clubs in the West Cork region: Kinsale, Bandon, Dunmanway, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, and Bantry. They’ve become very strong. At U16 level for example, the Munster Club final was contested by two West Cork clubs, Skibbereen and Kinsale.

"Considering you have 64 clubs in Munster it was some achievement for two West Cork clubs to get through.”

The growth of the game in West Cork has even seen a rising GAA starlet emerge from the famed Castlehaven club as a promising Munster prospect.

“Dave McCarthy from Castlehaven, who was involved in Cork GAA development squads, played for the Ireland U19s last Christmas and will be very close to pushing his way into the Munster Academy next year,” says McCarthy.

“Castlehaven could have one of their own on a Munster Academy contract next year.”

Eugene McCarthy admits that so many players finding their way onto Munster and Ireland squads is a new phenomenon in rugby in West Cork.

“It is a phenomenon. Munster Rugby itself, the organisation, puts a lot of work into development squad work, into skills and coaching the coach and improving the skills of the coaches (here in West Cork). They also support us with workshops throughout the years.

“It’s bearing fruit because coaches are coming to the workshops, they’re learning and what we’re finding not just in West Cork but country clubs are really beginning to thrive, especially in the last three or four years.”

There appears to be untapped potential not just in West Cork but throughout many rural regions of Ireland and the IRFU has recognised this, appointing four provincial talent coaches with one of the aims being to identify talent outside of the traditionally captured areas of talent.

RTÉ rugby commentator and Cork native, Michael Corcoran, has witnessed from up close the growth of the game in the province and is familiar with what is happening at grassroots level as Munster try to broaden the net in search of the next Darren Sweetnam, who played senior inter-county hurling with Cork before concentrating on rugby.

“The IRFU and Munster have talent identification personnel in place to see can they broaden the playing base,” says Corcoran.

“I spoke to Joe Schmidt last week and he reinforced the point in the conversation that when you look at our playing pool in Ireland, we’ve got four professional teams, the four provinces. England have 12, France has 30 — their Top 14 and a Pro D2 which is professional as well.

"In fairness to David Nucifora (IRFU Performance Director) you see what they’re trying to do with the talent identification with the Women’s Sevens game where they’re trying to broaden the whole playing base as much as they can; some of the current Women’s Sevens team are former ladies football, basketball or hockey players.

"They’re athletes but they’re trying to teach them the skills of rugby. Now they’re competing on the international stage.”

Corcoran adds: “If you look at the way Munster mushroomed and took off in the first phase of the original Heineken Cup, it was traditional clubs in traditional rugby playing areas where your players came from — the Cork Cons, the Shannons, the Garryowens, the Young Munsters.

"At the time people wondered whether you’d see a surge at schools level akin to what Leinster do in terms of the development of the game there. But it has been rooted in Leinster for a long time.

“It took Munster a bit of time to catch up because the traditional schools were still as strong as they were with the roots not spreading out any more. We see it now with the second phase of development of the game in the province.

"You look at the emergence of Darren Sweetnam, you look at Bandon RFC winning the Munster Junior Cup for the first time ever against a powerhouse in a team like Young Munster, you see the work that is going on at a level down from senior but it has borne fruit now.

“You now see now non-traditional schools competing to the closing stages of the Munster Senior Schools Cup. As a player you can go from being not really involved to being in a Munster squad very quickly. There is a pathway there now for kids.”

Damon Urlich describes how this pathway works.

“We run the Play Aldi programme that is advertised on TV, that’s run throughout Munster in primary schools and we try to link the primary schools up to the clubs.

"And we run an Emerging Schools secondary school programme where we’ve good representation from West Cork schools. We’re creating a pathway that links the primary schools to the secondary schools and into the club.”

Philip Crowley is PRO of Bandon RFC and describes rugby in the region as a “force to reckoned with”, with the rise in the popularity of the sport set to continue into the future.

His own club recently captured the Munster Junior Cup and their ambition is to become a senior club in the All- Ireland League.

“Over the last 10 years, the interest in rugby in West Cork has continued to rise and rise. People see the success with Munster and just want to be involved with rugby.

"Bandon Grammar have come on leaps and bounds and it has paid dividends this year with all the provincial and international representation. Bandon RFC winning the Munster Junior Cup at the weekend is another sign of the rise of game down west.

"Darren (Sweetnam) is one of the first to come through from the West Cork set-up, and in the last couple of months Fineen Wycherley from Bantry, Gavin Coombes and Dave McCarthy from Skibbereen are all coming through.

"Darren was the first to knock down the door, showing that West Cork rugby is a force and no longer is it based around cities and the city schools. West Cork rugby is a force to be reckoned with and it’s great to see those lads involved with Munster and Ireland set-ups.”

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