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'This will drive West Cork rugby to another level’

June 10th, 2023 12:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

'This will drive West Cork rugby to another level’ Image
West Cork’s finest, Fineen Wycherley, Gavin Coombes, John Hodnett, Josh Wycherley and Jack Crowley celebrate Munster’s terrific win in the URC final.(Photo: James Crombie/INPHO)

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KIERAN McCARTHY examines the boost West Cork rugby has received after local stars backboned Munster’s terrific URC final triumph


WHEN Tom Savage launched Three Red Kings eight years ago, it was a Ballineen man sharing his passion – and knowledge and insight – of rugby. 

He’s a rugby nut. A West Cork man with a deep love for the sport, especially Munster rugby. Like Darren Sweetnam in his pomp, Tom spotted a gap in the market, made a burst and Three Red Kings was born – a hugely popular rugby analysis online juggernaut.

It was around this time that Dunmanway man Sweetnam was starting to make people sit up and take notice of rugby in West Cork, but even Tom couldn’t have foreseen the explosion of rugby in his homeland. 

Welcome, #westcorkmafia. 

In the recent United Rugby Championship (URC) final in Cape Town, West Cork men took on lead roles as Munster won its first major silverware in 12 years. Rosscarbery’s John Hodnett, who came up through the ranks at Clonakilty RFC, scored the match-winning try in the 19-14 triumph against Stormers. Twenty minutes over the road stands Bandon RFC, the home club of Innishannon man Jack Crowley, one of the hottest properties in Irish rugby, the Munster outhalf oozing ability, confidence and class as he passed his latest test. Gavin Coombes is a born and bred Skibbereen man, who started off at his home club Skibbereen RFC; the six-foot six-inch giant was a colossus again in the final, and was the only Munster player named on the URC team of the year. Go further west, and Josh Wycherley of Bantry Bay RFC made an impact off the bench in the second half; his older brother Fineen was part of the travelling party to South Africa, too.

‘These are not bit-part players who come on do a job every now and again, these are big players making big moments in the biggest games for Munster. And they are performing all year long,’ Tom Savage points out.

‘I’m from Ballineen. These guys are from Rosscarbery, Innishannon, Skibbereen, and Bantry – and have all played such a huge role in Munster winning a trophy. That brings it so close to home. It’s great for rugby in the region.’


Damien Hicks, a man heavily involved in the rugby scene in Bantry, agrees. His club is where Fineen and Josh Wycherley took their first steps with a rugby ball. Damien’s son, Dylan, is one to keep an eye on, and recently lined out for Ireland in the U18 Men's Six Nations Festival. The success of the Wycherleys out west will be felt, and it’s the same story in Skibb, Clon and Bandon.

‘The impact will be massive for West Cork clubs,’ Hicks explains.

‘I suppose West Cork rugby was going well with the #westcorkmafia having such a influence over the last few seasons but now for Munster to be URC champions, it will bring it to another level. 

‘Young players and potential players actually being able to physically see their sports heroes win the final and lift the silverware will have a massive impact.’

Growing up in Coomhola outside Bantry, Fineen Wycherley remembers the excitement at home watching the great Munster team of that era – and heroes like Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer – win Heineken Cups in 2006 and ’08. It left an impression. Fineen previously told the Star: ‘I wanted to be like them, to grow up and play in Thomond Park on the big days and be part of this massive thing.’ Now, Fineen is part of a trophy-winning Munster group, and kids around West Cork can see that.

‘Many young grassroot players would have only heard stories about the Munster teams of old winning silverware. Now it’s there for them to see and to dream of pulling on the red jersey and playing for Munster,’ Hicks adds.

‘How many young players will now catch a ball and try a drop kick like Jack or score a winning try like John?

‘This will drive West Cork rugby to another level, I believe, and rugby all over Munster. Hopefully we see a few more players from West Cork joining the contingent.’

Gavin Coombes presents the jersey he wore playing for Ireland against USA to Skibbereen RFC President Neilie Hourihane and chairman Walter Young.


The growing West Cork influence in Munster looks here to stay. Fineen is 25 years old and is closing in on 100 games for the province, and Josh (23) is almost at 50 appearances. Gavin Coombes is 25 and has over 70 appearances; his older cousin Liam (26) has played 19 times. John Hodnett (24) has featured over 40 times for Munster. Jack Crowley (23) has 35 games under his belt already. Cian Hurley (23), another graduate from Clonakilty RFC, has signed a contract for next season. The West Cork roots have taken hold. If Darren Sweetnam was the West Cork rugby trailblazer, the Dunmanway pioneer who started the move, then the current golden generation are the ones who will finish it in style; like Hodnett and Crowley combined for the match-winning try and conversion in the URC final.

‘If you are a young player in West Cork – male or female – you look at these guys, at a John Hodnett, at a Gavin Coombes and you can think “why can’t I do what they do?” There is no reason why you can’t,’ Tom Savage says. 

‘For me, the best thing about this from a West Cork perspective is that there are no limits on what you can be thinking as a young player. You should never limit yourself because these guys have shown you can go to the highest level and win a trophy for Munster. These guys have shown what is possible.’

Walter Young, club chairman at Skibbereen RFC, home to the Coombes’ cousins, believes the paths that the West Cork players have taken should be noted too. These are men from rural backgrounds who started off with their local clubs, but are now taking centre stage at the top levels; Jack, Gavin and Fineen are all Irish senior internationals, with Jack and Gavin currently part of Andy Farrell’s set-up.

‘It shows that you don’t have to be a big, established senior club to get players coming through to Munster and Irish levels,’ Young notes.

‘You don’t have to go to the Pres or the Christians or the Rockwell schools necessarily or come up through the ranks of the Shannons, Cork Cons and Garryowens. Inevitably, you have to play AIL senior rugby to get to this level, but the beginnings can be in humble clubs like Skibbereen, Bandon, Bantry and Clonakilty. 

‘These players’ rugby ability was well and truly planted at the local level in the local clubs. That has to be positive.’

Also a positive is the visibility of Munster’s URC-winning heroes at home in West Cork. No doubt, the URC trophy will go on tour around the region so there will be plenty of photo opportunities, but these players have never forgotten their roots. The Coombes, when their schedules allow, can be spotted watching Skibbereen in action in the Munster Junior League on Sunday afternoons. Walter Young recalls seeing Gavin jogging with the Skibb men’s adult team around the Marsh pitch before last season’s junior league kicked off, while Liam presented the medals to the minis at the end of their season. Jack Crowley pops back to Bandon RFC as often as he can; he was there last month at the club’s annual end-of-season BBQ and awards night, along with fellow Munster star Shane Daly (son of club president Bill), meeting kids and signing autographs. 

‘To see how starstruck the kids were with Jack and Shane, it brought it all home,’ Dan Murphy of Bandon Rugby Club says. ‘The kids were looking at them in awe. I shared a story with Jack and Shane, that ten years ago Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo did a similar role at our club awards night, Jack was just 13 and he was presented with his medal by Peter and Simon, and look where Jack is now.

‘You can see the positive effect that Jack’s success is having on players in our club and you hope it would open the gate for more players to come through to us, and for clubs around West Cork.’

Jack Crowley in action for Bandon in their 2018 Munster U18 Cup final win against Skibbereen at Thomond Park.


In Bantry Fineen and Josh have their feet on the ground, too; when Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí officially opened its rugby facilities earlier this year, both the Wycherleys were there. When Clonakilty RFC ran its big fundraising draw in late 2022, John Hodnett helped promote it. 

‘Anytime John is free, he comes back home to Ross. He’ll always call into the club and he stays in touch with the lads,’ Clonakilty RFC Chairman Eoin Hurley says. For young boys and girls to get up close to Munster rugby stars from their own patch is priceless. 

‘They have joined the dots from clubs in West Cork to the highest levels and that has to give young kids encouragement that you can do it with hard work and dedication. There will be hard knocks along the way but you have to learn from them and come back stronger,’ Walter Young says. He bumped into Fineen and Josh in Ballydehob recently; they were with their father, Florence, who is originally from Skibbereen and a former team-mate of Young. 

‘Two outstanding young men,’ Young points out, and these are the role models for the next generation of West Cork rugby players who don’t need to look outside their own backyard for heroes to aspire to. That’s important. 

What’s key in this story, too – the rugby boom in West Cork – is the role of the clubs and coaches. This is where it all starts. At the grassroots level.

‘The Crowleys are great club people. So many of Jack’s family have played with the club. His brother Jerry is playing, his brother Billy is with Cork Con now but started off here. There is a great community spirit here, and the same can be said for the Coombes, Wycherleys, the Hodnetts,’ Dan Murphy explains.

‘What has West Cork got going for it? The community-based club spirit that our clubs have, that’s huge. You hear them talking about what Ronan O’Gara has created in La Rochelle, but that’s what is here in West Cork. That’s huge, that good club spirit, that community spirit. Chase the rainbow and sometimes you’ll get the pot of gold at the end of it.’

The gold now comes in the shape of URC winner’s medals, and West Cork is home to quite a few after Munster’s recent success.

‘It’s astonishing what these players have achieved, and for their coaches who showed them how to pick up a ball, how to pass it, how to play the game – that all happened in West Cork,’ Dan Murphy adds.

This traditional GAA area is now a hotbed of rugby talent, and its reputation has been enhanced even more with the role of Gavin, Jack, John, Josh and Fineen in Munster’s great finish to the season.

Remember, too, the Rugby World Cup is also just around the corner, another opportunity for rugby to win more hearts and minds in West Cork and dominate the headlines, especially if Crowley and Coombes are on the flight to France. 

It's still boom time here in the west.

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