Bandon’s bonanza rugby year enters bonus territory in Bruff

There’s a lot of competition for bunting space in Bandon these days.
Bandon’s bonanza rugby year enters bonus territory in Bruff

The lilywhite of Bandon GAA has flown high as their hurlers catapulted through the ranks from intermediate to senior, and their footballers from junior to premier intermediate. Few locals will forget their incredible double in 2016.

The green and black of Bandon hockey has captured three Irish Hockey Trophies in three years – not to mention that the world’s best goalkeeper David Harte took up the sport in Bandon Grammar School.

Now, it’s been a bonanza year for the royal blue side of Bandon. Scratch that, it’s been a bonanza month for the rugby club.

Following their second-ever Munster Junior League victory on a ‘number of wins’ tiebreaker, the club reeled off a hat-trick of Munster titles – the U18 Cup, U16 Plate and U16 Bowl, the latter with a team composed entirely of U15 players.

Their U18s went on to win the All-Ireland by beating Skerries last Saturday – a remarkable addition to the club’s historic U19 All-Ireland Cup won in 2013.

That very day, their first-team beat Ulster champions Instonians at home in Oldchapel to earn a crack at senior status and an All-Ireland League place in a play-off away to Bruff today (2pm at Kilballyowen Park).

They may be one of the oldest clubs in Ireland – a fact noted on their jerseys – but they’ve never seen days quite like these in the past 136 years.

When you ask incoming club president and volunteer of over 30 years’ service Dan Murphy to put it all into context, he acclaims the town’s broader success and the backing they receive from the 7,000 inhabitants.

“It’s incredible. Bandon is a great town. The hurlers and footballers have had tremendous success over the past number of years and the senior hurlers had a great win over Na Piarsaigh last weekend as well,” says Murphy.

“The great thing about the town is that the whole town is talking about it. Last weekend, the whole town was talking about the U18s. Okay, we beat Instonians at junior level, but the whole focus was the U18s and their achievement of winning the All-Ireland.

“To win two All-Irelands in five years, for a club like Bandon, it’s something special. But the whole town is behind it. To see those kids coming back from Mullingar on Saturday night, and to see the people out on the street to meet them, that celebration was fabulous.

“The dream season is seeing the joy and the happiness it brings to all different people in the town and in the club.”

Youth officer and Mayo man Gary McCormick joined the club as a way to integrate into his new community and he’s never left since.

His native Ballina beat Bandon on their way to clinching an All-Ireland League spot last month, but McCormick was firmly in the blue corner.

“There were fierce family rivalries there as to who I’d be shouting for,” he laughs. “I was in blue and they were all wearing green.

“I came here about 16 years ago and just saw it as a great way to get to know the people. Rugby’s been good to me over all the years so I try to give a lot back.”

Speaking of the atmosphere in Bandon, he adds: “I’ve just driven through the town and on every road in and out, the messages of support are there. It’s tremendous. There are at least ten signs on every road going in wishing the boys well for what they’ve achieved and what they hopefully will achieve on Saturday.”

The youth set-up he oversees is the “foundation-stone” of all their success, says Murphy. They’ve both coached many of the current first-team from when they were learning to pass the ball. It’s the ultimate tonic for any volunteer to see their four fields and all-weather pitch full with over 300 local kids on a Saturday morning following the same learning curve.

“If we’ve matches going on and the other clubs are coming to us, some Saturday mornings we could have 600 or 700 kids there,” says McCormick.

“Our underage numbers have grown considerably. When I would’ve started 15 years ago there were 80 or 90 registered, but now we’re up to 345. It’s a combination of a lot of factors that have come together to produce the winning teams we have now. We’ve been working on consistency in applying the same standards of rugby from U18s all the way down to U7s, and applying those skills and mindsets.”

That quadrupling of numbers requires nearly as many volunteers now (75 to 80) as they had players 15 years ago to cover not just coaching, but child welfare officers and car-parking officials and all the odd jobs that keep everything running smoothly.

“It’s all based on volunteer hours. I tip my hat to anybody who gives an hour on a Saturday morning to try to help the club.”

The club’s growth has been boosted by a partnership with Bandon Grammar School in which they pooled resources to hire a full-time coach. They didn’t just hire any coach either. Regis Sonnes won the French Top 14 three times in four years during the nineties – taking the other year out to “enjoy life and go surfing for a year”.

So surprise sabbaticals were nothing new when he left Bordeaux Begles and Champions Cup rugby for the tranquillity of West Cork.

James French, a Bandon clubman turned Ireland U20 international, recently hailed Sonnes, saying: “It was unbelievable, he’s so good. When I was in sixth year, we were down on the pitch three times a week, doing video. He brought in things I had never really heard of before.”

He’ll be returning to his old club, Toulouse, as co-head coach next season but his legacy will remain. The Grammar School have beaten Limerick’s traditional powerhouse St Munchin’s in the Munster Schools Senior Cup three years in a row.

And we haven’t even mentioned Bandon’s first-ever Munster Junior Cup, collected last year after decades of waiting.

“It’s very hard to quantify the impact he’s had on the club. He’s been phenomenal,” says Murphy.

“He’s a tremendous coach but he’s a tremendous person as well. His personality shines through in his coaching ability and the way he gets the most out of the players – be it an U7, an adult or a student in the Grammar School.

“For a guy who’s going off to Toulouse, he’s an incredible clubman. He’s become a proud Bandonian really, and there’s a bit of fun in him as well. He’s a very humble man.”

They now face the unenviable challenge of finding his successor.

“If we could do a photocopy and take him out the other side, we’d do it. We can’t but there’s a process we went through two years ago and I’d hope there’s more definition to the role now that we’ve been two years through it.

“There’s a bit of interest out there and it’s trying to get the right character to fill the role.

“Paul Barr would’ve been involved with us as a coach a couple of years back too.

“His ability in coaching is phenomenal so the lads would’ve had exposure to top-level coaching which would be unusual for a rural club. That probably comes through in the results as well.”

It’ll be that most rugby of sayings, bonus territory, for them in Bruff. But for a team which put had to put four bonus-point wins together in their final four league games for the narrowest of title victories, it’s territory which won’t startle them.

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