A YOUNG international protection applicant handed his ball back to the Clonakilty rugby coach at the end of a minis’ training session.
When informed the rugby ball was his to keep, the child smiled from ear to ear and announced he would look after the ball forever.
Not alone had Clonakilty Rugby Club kindly donated a new set of rugby balls to a group of children, but much more importantly, they gave those seeking international protection a sense of belonging and being part of a team.
That moment is a microcosm of the extensive work being carried out by the Shannonvale-based club with marginalised groups within their local community.
Clonakilty Friends of Asylum Seekers' Kitty Sisson helped arrange a Clon Rugby Club visit to the polytunnel at Clonakilty Lodge recently.
Ten resident children and their parents were invited to visit Shannonvale by club Community Engagement Officers Courtney Canning, Sinead Burton and additional coaches.
‘Courtney spoke to the parents and children and invited them out to Shannonvale to try playing some rugby,’ Sinéad Burton told The Southern Star.
‘We handed out rugby balls to the children, something that was organised by Neville Burton, and arranged for the children to be transported to our Saturday morning minis’ sessions.
‘Since then, we have had offers from parents to help with the weekly transportations. We are also in the process of collecting donations of old boots and rugby gear for the children. Our initiative is gaining traction and we are delighted with the response so far.’
Since setting up the Youth Space under the YMCA umbrella in Clonakilty, Courtney Canning, with help from Sinéad Burton, has focused on helping many other local groups.
One of those is the LGBT community entitled Bród (Irish for pride), a new group recently formed in Clonakilty.
Clonakilty rugby has already contacted Bród about working together. One potential plan is to create a pride weekend where all club members wear rainbow-coloured socks during games. LGBT workshops may also be arranged in Shannonvale.
A lot of other initiatives are being put in place by Clonakilty rugby including Autism Awareness, an upcoming strategy to engage with the local Travellers Association Centre plus building on the successful mixed-ability Jesters team involving other West Cork clubs.
‘Ultimately, Sinéad and I took on the roles within Clonakilty Rugby Club because we felt it presented us with an opportunity to link up with marginalised groups within the community who might not have the advantages we take for granted,’ Canning commented.
‘It is all about providing those children and parents an opportunity to get involved with our club. It can be a case of providing gear, equipment or just transportation to and from training. Our club’s main ethos is inclusivity and making sure kids have fun.
So, we feel we can provide a sense of belonging for those who might feel isolated in the community.
‘Our club isn’t just about creating good rugby players; it is genuinely about making better people. We want to see young kids who have the privileges that other children don’t, develop their social skills and empathy as part of this as well.’
Clonakilty Rugby Club is proving just as effective on the field having recently won a 2020 Munster rugby award for club mini section of the year.
Clon’s mini section looks after children aged between six and 12 years old, and caters for both boys and girls. The Shannonvale-based club is looking after close to 350 children in their mini section alone and 500 underage players (including youths) in total.
Geoff Murphy is head of Clonakilty’s minis, but just one of an army of enthusiastic parents-turned-coaches who are helping lay the club’s future foundations both at mini's and youths level.
‘Minis’ rugby is active for about 15 years and I've been involved myself with it for the past eight years,’ Murphy said.
‘I am one small part of a big team. The success of minis’ rugby is the buzz and enthusiasm that all our coaches bring. With the minis, we would have anything up to 50 coaches helping on a Saturday.
‘The club is lucky to have buy-in from parents when it comes to becoming coaches. Our aim is to have one coach for every six mini section players. We have no preconceived ideas when it comes to recruiting coaches, whatever their background, they are welcome.
‘Enthusiasm is the key and everything else follows. The key is creating a positive environment for the children.
‘Going into schools in the surrounding area has also been huge for us. It’s something we started many years ago, but now six club volunteers regularly visit local schools and coach hundreds of children. There was a positive take-up from teachers, children and parents where the shape of the ball was irrelevant.’
Director of Rugby in Clonakilty RFC, Neville Burton, echoed Geoff Murphy’s sentiments. Burton added that any future success starts with the minis, but will be down to the Trojan work of every single coach (over 90 in total) within the youths and adult sections.
‘It is all part of a club strategy that we kicked off a number of years ago,’ Burton said.
‘We had this vision of being a grassroots club that holds those numbers all the way up to youths level and that would eventually lead to a strong, sustainable adults setup. It has been a long time in the making, but we are already starting to see the fruits of that work. We cannot underestimate the work being done in the schools for a sustained period at the beginning of every season.
‘One example is Vicky McCabe who deserves credit for building a girls’ section - with help from the club - from nothing. That section has grown from zero to 130 active young female players, 70 within the minis’ section alone.
‘We now have entire families coming out for Saturday morning training. As a result, Clonakilty rugby club has become a totally inclusive and more family-orientated club.
‘Sometimes, I think we are guilty of forgetting what sport is all about, it is about children having fun,’ Geoff Murphy concluded.
‘Participation is key and not having any ‘A’s or ‘B’s up to U16, specifically in the minis’ section, is hugely important. For children not to be graded or labelled at young ages allows them to develop. They don’t need to be rubber stamped by a grade.
‘That approach is the very ethos of Clonakilty Rugby Club. The parents, children and coaches like it. There are no competitions up to U12, just blitzes where every child plays.
The core of what we do is total inclusivity where everyone gets equal playing time.’
Inclusivity, participation and fun. The keywords by which a progressive Clonakilty Rugby Club will continue to flourish on and off the pitch over the coming years.