Rugby’s rise in West Cork is undeniable, but what’s driving its new-found popularity? KIERAN McCARTHY explains why the sport is flying high in a non-traditional rugby area
COLM McMahon is not the only one who is excited about the explosion of rugby in West Cork. As Munster Rugby Head of Development he is keen to ensure that the conveyor belt from West Cork to Thomond Park remains as productive as it currently is, but the growth of the game locally means other counties want to replicate what’s happening in West Cork rugby.
‘What we’re seeing in West Cork is very exciting and we want to make sure that keeps going, and now there are some areas that are looking at West Cork, saying we want to be like them and have the same success – that highlights the strength of rugby in West Cork right now,’ McMahon explains.
This might be a non-traditional rugby area but the sport is booming right across the region. It has put down firm roots and the harvest is rich. From Laura Sheehan out west in Inchinteskin in Beara to Jack Crowley in Innishannon, local women and men – and the clubs in between – have put West Cork rugby on the map.
Look at the recent wave of Munster Rugby contracts. The Betsboro beast Gavin Coombes (23), who came through the ranks at Skibbereen RFC, signed a new two-year deal with the province; Gavin is also the breakout star with Munster this season and trained with the Irish senior squad in February. His first cousin Liam (23), also a Skibbereen RFC success story, penned a one-year deal. Rosscarbery man John Hodnett (22) (Clonakilty RFC) signed his first senior deal, while 22-year-old James French (Bandon RFC) has also been promoted to the Munster senior squad for next season.
Then there are the Wycherley brothers, Fineen (23) and Josh (21), from Coomhola outside Bantry, who are both making a huge impact with Munster, and Fineen was called up to Ireland senior training last year. Dunmanway man Darren Sweetnam (27) is the pioneer here, having signed his first professional contract in 2012 and his role in this story is huge – he showed that players from West Cork can forge a professional rugby career at the highest level. There’s the highly-rated former Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar outhalf Jack Crowley (21) who has set tongues wagging. Cian Hurley (20), who came through Clonakilty RFC, is another to keep an eye for. And there’s more on the way.
There are Ireland international seniors Enya Breen (21) with Munster and Laura Sheehan (27) who signed with the Exeter Chiefs earlier this year – and both are preparing for the upcoming Women’s Six Nations. Durrus woman Andrea Stock (21) is lining out with Wasps Ladies in England.
On the club scene Bandon RFC’s currency of choice at the clubhouse is medals, given their recent success. Their adult first team has won the Munster Junior Cup (2017) and Munster Junior League Division 1 (2017/18) titles in recent years, while their underage teams have won All-Ireland U16 (2019), U18 (2018) and U19 (2013) crowns. Bandon, Skibbereen and Clonakilty all compete in Munster Junior League Division 1.
Skibbereen RFC got their hands on the All-Ireland U18 title in 2019. When Munster won the 2019 IRFU U18 Women’s Interprovincial Championship there were eight players from Skibbereen RFC in the squad.
Rugby is not just growing in West Cork, it’s exploding. From minis up to adult, clubs are reporting huge interest. Pre-Covid, Bandon RFC welcomed 350 kids and 70 coaches to the club every Saturday morning for training or matches. Clonakilty RFC looks after 350 children in their minis section alone and 500 underage players in total – and the club won the 2020 Munster Rugby Club Mini Section of the Year Award. Just under 280 kids were involved with Skibbereen RFC before the first lockdown. Bantry Bay RFC’s minis and youths section boasts 200 members. They are incredibly strong numbers – and they’re getting bigger.
The foundation for rugby’s current success in West Cork can be traced back to the clubs and the volunteers, says Munster Rugby Development Officer Eugene McCarthy – a man who has done huge work for rugby in Bantry and West Cork.
‘I am a great believer that a community develops a player and it’s about the environment they grow up in,’ McCarthy says.
‘The rugby clubs in West Cork are doing a huge amount of work on the ground, they are really taking care of the players and putting in place the scaffolding around young players to help then develop.
‘Ninety to ninety-five percent of the work is done by clubs, from skills development to strength and conditioning. We (Munster) support both coach and player development along the way, and a lot of what we see now is because of the great people working in the clubs.’
Colm McMahon of Munster Rugby agrees. Young players entering the Munster Academy now are in a better position than ever before – that can be traced directly back to the clubs and their coaches.
Take Gavin Coombes for example. He started with the minis at Skibbereen RFC and moved up through the ranks there, and also played schools’ rugby with Bandon Grammar. The foundation built there gave him the best possible chance of taking his career further. Now look at him: a back-row star for Munster tipped for great things.
‘Gavin’s physical make-up meant he was starting in a great place and then he had the coaching input locally at club and schools’ levels,’ McMahon says.
‘When you see some of the skills that Gavin has displayed in matches for Munster, that’s some of the stuff that we saw him doing in Bandon Grammar and that can be traced back to his club.
‘Also, what Gavin has is really good subtle evasion. So for a really big guy he is able to shift his weight and swerve, and that’s why defenders struggle at times to get a shoulder on him. That’s a great example of the skillset that we are seeing now – a big, strong, physical player who has really subtle touches as well.’
Munster Rugby’s role in this is on the coach development side as they promote, for example, what they feel is best practice in skills development. McMahon explains further.
‘One of the things we have looked at with Munster is to make sure that the message is really clear, what good skill development is and then try to make it as simple as possible,’ he says.
‘It’s really good, technical information so the coaches in the clubs and schools can take on board and try to implement themselves. It starts on the ground with our great volunteers who are putting the time in with the young players, and Munster’s part is to try and give really good information.’
McMahon adds: ‘What is also helping is good, technical direction and then players practising through the small-sided games’ model. That’s something that is being promoted and a lot of clubs and schools are taking it on board, that if you can coach it through a game it will be more beneficial to them because along with the technical side of things they have the decision-making as well, which is a huge part in skills development.’
The role of local schools is important here also. Bandon Grammar has that history behind them, and even they are flying high in the Munster Schools’ Senior Cup in recent years, reaching the last four twice in three seasons.
In 2019 Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí qualified for the Munster Schools Junior Cup for the first time in the Bantry school’s history. That was a breakthrough moment. The school, which opened in 2011, has seven rugby teams (five boys’ teams and two girls’ teams) and has benefitted from the Emerging Schools Initiative. The majority of players also line out with Bantry Bay RFC, so it has strengthened rugby in and around Bantry. Rugby has also been introduced at national schools’ level, so it’s visible and accessible for everyone.
Former Ireland rugby international Donal Lenihan insists there has always been a strong rugby presence in West Cork. He namechecks Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen as a trio with a proud history at junior level. They’re well-run clubs, he says. Impressive club-houses with even better people involved. These days those clubs – and rugby in general – are receiving more media attention than ever before. That has opened a lot of peoples’ eyes.
‘When we were growing up it was Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds United that we saw on TV every week, but look at the difference now – there is so much more TV coverage of rugby and right across the media,’ Lenihan notes.
‘The increased coverage means that rugby is more accessible to everyone, from local rugby in local newspapers to Munster and Ireland on the national stage – and that’s helped increase the interest in rugby.
‘People know all about Munster, what’s going on, who the players are, where they’re from, everything, because they have a profile now they didn’t have years ago. That has opened up rugby to a whole load of kids and now you have young kids all over the six counties who dream of playing for Munster.
‘Those kids also know now that they have an opportunity to become a professional sportsperson.’
The success of Munster and Ireland rugby has increased interest. Urhan’s Ireland international Laura Sheehan became hooked after watching Munster win Heineken Cups in 2006 and 2008. She watched her heroes on TV, and now she is on TV playing for Ireland with young girls wanting to emulate her. Ditto for young boys wanting to be the next Darren Sweetnam or Gavin Coombes. Their success has opened the door to a whole new audience.
‘Go back 20 years you’d never see a Munster jersey in a school or a rugby ball in a national school in West Cork or Kerry, two fairly strong football areas, but it has all changed,’ Ray Gadsden, Munster Rugby Participation Programmes Coordinator, told the Star before.
West Cork is still seen as a GAA stronghold, the home of Gaelic football in the county, but there is no denying either that rugby is increasing in popularity too, driven too by the success of so many locals.
Young kids in West Cork don’t have to look too far to find a rugby role model. Or role models.
Darren Sweetnam is the trailblazer in this story. He’s the former Dohenys hurler who signed a professional contract with Munster in late 2012. Suddenly, there was more interest locally in Munster as a Dunmanway man was involved, and he made an impact at Thomond Park. Then he made his Ireland senior debut in 2017. Now West Cork had a senior rugby international.
‘Having Sweets playing for Ireland, someone from a small town in West Cork like Dunmanway, seeing a local hero doing well and playing for Munster and Ireland makes a difference,’ Fineen Wycherley noted before.
When a local man or woman – a brother, a sister, a friend, a neighbour, a team-mate, a second cousin, Mary’s daughter, Jerry’s grandson – hits the big time, that’s big news at home. It gets people talking, but it also shows that a pathway exists from rural West Cork to the highest levels. Having a local hero makes it achievable. And that success breeds success. Look at the rise of Gavin and Liam Coombes who came through Skibbereen RFC.
‘For the kids, it is like having a couple of superstars around the place whenever they are here,’ Skibb coach Denis McCarthy says.
‘More importantly, our younger players can now see a pathway if any of them have ambitions to play rugby professionally. Gavin and Liam’s recent successes show Skibbereen, or West Cork as a whole, is an area capable of producing professional rugby players the same as anywhere else.’
This is a story replicated right across the region. West Cork kids’ Munster and Ireland heroes are men and women they know. It makes their dreams even more attainable, for young boys and girls.
It’s not just the men who are making the headlines, so too are West Cork’s women. Before current internationals Enya Breen and Laura Sheehan, Clonakilty’s Laura Guest led the way and played in three World Cups and won a Grand Slam. The talent is here too, and the women’s game is growing.
Since the women’s side of Skibbereen RFC got up and running in 2016 they have fielded at various underage levels and before the first lockdown last year the club’s first-ever adult women’s team beat Bantry Bay RFC in the Munster Women’s Development League. That’s growth and progress.
Eight players from Skikbbereen RFC were also on the Munster panel that won the 2019 IRFU U18 Women’s Interprovincial Championship: Eimear Minihane (Schull), Emma Connolly (Skibbereen), Chloe Ann O’Driscoll (Schull), Alex O’Sullivan (Crookhaven), Abbie Salter-Townshend (Skibbereen), Vivienne O’Donovan (Skibbereen), Katelyn Hurley (Drimoleague) and Niamh Thornton (Skibbereen).
Bandon has a strong women’s section, as has Bantry Bay RFC who are very active and successful. Clonakilty RFC has more former internationals in Eimear O’Sullivan and Maeve Quirke.
‘West Cork has shown the biggest growth in Munster for women’s rugby,’ Eugene McCarthy notes.
‘Dunmanway ran Irish Rugby’s Give it a Try programme and 57 girls turned up. That programme is for girls up to 14 years of age, to introduce them to rugby and have fun at the same time.’
The growth of rugby is undeniable, as is the growing success of West Cork players with Ireland and Munster squads, increased success for local clubs and schools, and the impressive structures in local rugby clubs that are giving their members the best chance of fulfilling their dreams and following in the footsteps of the current crop of stars. It’s no wonder that other areas in Munster want to replicate what’s going in in West Cork rugby.