The official functions to mark Bruff RFC’s 50th anniversary may be on hold in the midst of this pandemic but for members of the rural Co. Limerick club there is still plenty to celebrate.
Founded by teenagers Willie Conway and Nicholas Cooke in 1969-70, Bruff is one of the newest clubs on the block but has managed to pack an awful lot in over the last 50 years as well as making a significant impact on both Munster and Irish rugby.
For many rugby folk, the club is synonymous with tighthead prop John Hayes who earned provincial, international and British & Irish Lions recognition while playing for his home club, his brother Tom, who would become a legend with Exeter Chiefs, and for Test referee George Clancy. Yet for many the essence of the club is centred around the sense of community it offers.
“The memorable thing for me in all this is the people,” former club president Ger Malone said. “From the likes of Nicholas and Willie who founded the club, they initially struggled to field adult teams but they did it. There are people and families, including my own, who would never have been involved in rugby if it wasn’t for those two guys.”
Former captain John Hogan added: “I don’t know what I’d do without Bruff. It’s where I’ve gotten the vast majority of my friends and it’s where I learned not just about the game, obviously being able to play the game is great fun, but also you get so many good examples of just good, decent people around you there.
“I’ve learned an awful lot more off the rugby pitch there than I would have learned on it. I was never much good on the rugby pitch either so it’s probably just as well.”
Hogan, now a lecturer at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, was by his own description a “desperately undersized hooker” who was on the bench when Bruff enjoyed their biggest triumph to date, winning the Munster Senior Cup and national Bateman Cup in 2010-11. He captained the club in 2017-18 and has now committed to writing it’s history. It is a labour of love.
“There’s a fantastic sense of community there, which is really important. When the recession hit, coming to the club would have been one of the few times when people would have met each other and had a laugh. So it’s been hugely important to people. It’s a super hub for people to have in a community.”
That was all a long way off the radar of 19-year-old friends Conway and Cooke back in late 1969 when they decided to start the club.
“We were all hurling, from a rural area, myself and Nicholas Cooke playing for Bruff’s minor team. We were at a loose end and Nicholas was playing a bit of rugby with Shannon Under-20s, he had gone to Rockwell College. He asked would I come in and play with Shannon but I said ‘why don’t we start our own team?’
“He had two brothers who’d gone to Rockwell and there were a couple of guys locally who had played here and there, and we had a good few Gaelic players so we horsed into it and I got us a game against Derrymore near Charleville.
“Some of us had never even handled a ball. Training sessions? We had no training sessions. We barely got them into the car. We changed above in Cronin’s Hotel in Charleville, I got a set of jerseys off the local GAA, there were some divisional team jerseys going idle and off we went.
“We had our first AGM in 1970 in the local GAA club and invited Colonel The O’Grady, who owned the estate over the road. The Colonel donated a pitch to us and a lodge which was converted into a clubhouse and we’re still there (at Killballyowen Park). We made him president needless to say.”
Bruff hit the ground running after that. They reached the final of the Clare Cup in Ennis in 1971, the first competition they entered and won it the following year. Limerick’s Transfield Cup was won in 1978 and though the Munster Junior Cup would elude them Bruff were building from the bottom up, their burgeoning underage section dovetailing with a link-up with St Munchin’s College.
“The more I think about it the more I realise how well organised we were with the underage set-up and the women’s rugby,” Conway said.
The knock-on effect was underage success that would eventually lead to securing senior status in the All Ireland League. An All Ireland Under-20s title came in 2000-01, Bruff having won the U18 in 1998 and an U16 national title two years later.
“That group of players, with others, was probably the backbone that won the Munster Senior Cup and Bateman Cup in 2010-11,” said Malone, a Bruff clubman for 36 years who having become its president was then the club’s first Munster Branch President in 2018-19.
Senior status was achieved just six years earlier when Munster Junior League success was converted into play-off victory and promotion.
“We won the Munster Senior Cup and Bateman Cup in 2010-11 when Peter Malone (son of Ger Malone) came back to us from Garryowen as player-coach,” Hogan recalled. “We beat a Cork Con team with Simon Zebo on it and then a Garryowen team with Conor Murray on it in the final. We beat UCD in the Bateman semi, I was on the bench that day, and we were losing but we got two tries in the last 10 minutes to beat them. And then in the Bateman Cup final we beat a Dungannon side with Paddy Jackson on it. So we were playing a high standard of team.
“It was shocking given the club had started from such humble beginnings. We’d only been a senior club a short number of years so to win a Bateman Cup was incredible.”
With the club in Energia AIL Division 2C, Ger Malone believes simply retaining senior status is an achievement in itself.
“It really is a community-based club and it has still to this day got a very good underage structure and a very good women’s committee. There’s a lot of work and graft that gets done for the club and we’ve been blessed with great captains and presidents as well.
“It takes a huge effort, and if you think, when we went into the All Ireland League in 2004, there 16 teams in each division and of the 16 when we first went into the third division probably seven of them have now gone out of senior rugby. So it’s very competitive and a challenge for the club to keep the thing going. We’re facing the challenge as a club and I think we can look forward to the future with confidence.”
Bruff committed to women's game
Bruff RFC is proud of its long-standing commitment to women’s rugby and despite the current lack of a women’s team, the underage representation gives plenty of optimism for a bright future.
One of the first women’s teams in Ireland was from Bruff, club historian John Hogan explained. “There wouldn’t have been too many women’s teams in Ireland during the 1970s but Christine Conway, the wife of club founder Willie Conway, organised them and for years they would play an annual challenge game against the AIB Banks in Limerick.”
A Bruff women’s team was resurrected in 2012 with Heidi van Schayk, now the U12s coach, answering a call for players on Facebook. “That worked for about two to three years but it was very hard to field a team every week and we couldn’t keep it going,” the Dutchwoman said.
The current girls section now is much more organised, Conway explained with Bruff fielding teams at U12, U14, U16 and U18 when domestic rugby was halted due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Former Ireland international Fiona Steed coaches the U14s and van Schayk describes a flourishing player base.
“The support from the club has been brilliant, we’ve great facilities and they encourage us to go on coaching courses. We’ve 90 girls now and the players that started out with us in 2014 are now our veterans, playing for the U18s and year on year with great support from parents and former players like Tom Griffin and Joe Kelly we’ve basically added an extra team. So hopefully next year we’ll have teams from U10 all the way up.”
Club call to mark anniversaries
Clubs celebrating an anniversary this year may not be able to celebrate collectively at the moment but we'd love to mark your occasion. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.