It might be a non-traditional rugby area but West Cork’s reputation as a hotbed for rugby talents and teams is growing, as KIERAN McCARTHY explains
CONSIDERING that Ray Gadsden has worked for Munster Rugby for almost 20 years, he has seen the game grow enormously – but even he is blown away by what’s happening in West Cork these times.
West Cork is regarded as a GAA stronghold, the heartland of Gaelic football in the county, but in recent times the west’s conveyor belt of talented rugby players has caused many to sit up and take notice.
This non-traditional rugby area is now supplying several players at provincial and international level.
‘This is rare enough to be honest,’ explains Gadsden, a Community Rugby Officer with Munster, who works in part of West Cork (covering Skibbereen, Bantry and Dunmanway) and Kerry.
‘In the last couple of years the amount of players coming through from West Cork and playing representative rugby with Munster and Ireland, I don’t think there is any pocket of clubs in any part of the country that are getting more representatives on the provincial and national teams.’
Already this year, Skibbereen RFC product David McCarthy (Union Hall) and Bandon RFC’s James French featured for Ireland in the U20 Six Nations, Clonakilty’s Cian Hurley (CBC) and Bantry’s Padraig McCarthy (Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí) have been involved with the Ireland U18 schools’ team, Bantry’s Josh Wycherley (CC Roscrea) has played for the Ireland U19s, and they are the latest batch.
Look back on the past 16 months, Bantry’s Fineen Wycherley (older brother of Josh) played for Ireland in the 2017 U20 Six Nations and U20 World Championship, and the Skibbereen RFC trio of Gavin and Liam Coombes (first cousins) and David McCarthy also played at those world championships in Georgia.
Fineen has also played for the Munster first team and signed his first professional contract (a one-year development deal) in January, and himself, Gavin, Liam and David have all regularly played for Munster A and have featured at British & Irish Cup level, Fineen and Gavin winning that competition last season.
Then there is West Cork’s finest rugby product of late, Dunmanway’s flying winger Darren Sweetnam, who has played 54 times for Munster since his senior debut in February 2014, impressing off the bench in the recent Champions Cup quarter-final win against Toulon at Thomond Park.
The non-traditional rugby area of West Cork is now harvesting an above average number of representative players, but not only that, local clubs are also making an impact on the Munster scene.
Both Bandon and Skibbereen compete in Muster Junior League Division 1, Clonakilty and Kinsale in Division 2, Bantry Bay operate in Division 3.
Last month Bandon won MJL Division 1 for the first time since 1992/93, off the back of winning the Munster Junior Cup last season, while at underage level, Bandon, Skibbereen, Clonakilty and Kinsale are all involved at the business end of competitions, winning silverware regularly.
Last Sunday, Bandon beat Skibbereen in an all-West Cork Munster U18 Club Cup final, two local teams in the provincial decider. It was a particularly memorable day for Bandon, also winning the Munster Club U16 Plate final, off the back of winning the U16 Bowl final last Thursday night. A terrific treble.
‘The numbers playing in the clubs in West Cork, especially the younger ages, is very encouraging,’ Ray Gadsden explains.
‘The clubs are maintaining high numbers.
‘Because the coaching has improved, the experience of the kids has improved and they can see a pathway going forward, that gives the players who are really interested in progressing the opportunity to push on.’
The likes of Sweetnam, Fineen Wycherley, the Coombes, they have all shown that a young rugby player in West Cork has the chance – and the pathway – to feature at provincial level, and then Irish level.
The success of West Cork clubs and players in recent years also highlights the importance of clubs supplying players, as well as players emerging from the schools’ system.
‘The club game is very strong and it really needs to be minded because a gem can come out of the club game and not through the schools,’ says Dan Murphy of Bandon RFC.
‘All the kids that are in Bandon, Bantry, Clon, Skibb, Kinsale, they are vital to the future of the game.’
Mags Coombes, the first lady president of Skibbereen RFC, agrees.
‘In the past, traditionally it wouldn’t have been as easy for a fella with a club background to follow that pathway – but it’s more common now,’ she says.
‘You’d imagine in Skibbereen that young players coming up will see what Gavin, Liam and David have achieved, and will want to emulate that because they’ve shown it can be done.’
Success breeds success, and with Sweetnam (who made his Ireland debut last November against South Africa and started against Fiji) the most recognisable rugby player from West Cork, young kids growing up now have a local hero, a role model whose path to the top they can follow.
‘I suppose now with a few of us local lads in with Munster and involved with Ireland, young fellas in West Cork can see now that the targets they set themselves are achievable. There’s a path there that they can see,’ Fineen Wycherley told us before.
But this isn’t an overnight success story. Rugby hasn’t suddenly exploded in West Cork. It’s taken a lot of hard work by the local clubs over the last decade to create the current environment where local clubs and players have the chance to excel.
Bantry’s highly-respected rugby guru Eugene McCarthy, a man who has helped the game develop hugely in West Cork, adds: ‘The IRFU is now using West Cork as an example of non-traditional areas where there has been huge growth.’
Let that sink in: West Cork is being used as an example of a rugby area on the rise.
West Cork is now a rugby force to be reckoned with.
‘This didn’t happen overnight, this has been happening for years – but there is more public awareness now to what’s going on and that comes from more awareness from the media towards what’s happening in West Cork,’ – this is Dan Murphy’s theory of why suddenly West Cork’s rugby exploits are making the headlines.
And he’s right.
At national and local levels in the past five to ten years, rugby has received more and more coverage, more column inches, and that’s delivering the good news to the masses.
News of local rugby teams and players is now more accessible to Joe Bloggs than ever before.
‘More media attention has opened people’s eyes,’ Murphy continues.
‘Bandon, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bantry, Kinsale, we’ve all been very proud clubs and West Cork has been strong historical with Gaelic football and hurling – but maybe there’s an awareness within the media now when they see fellas make it on the Munster scene.’
The success of Ireland and Munster in the last decade – think of Ireland’s Grand Slam of 2009, the Heineken Cup wins of 2006 and 2008 – brought rugby to a new audience, and its popularity continues to grow.
There is more rugby on TV now, too.
The latest Grand Slam heroics has rubber-stamped the sport’s growth, and while the GAA and soccer are still ahead of it in the pecking order, rugby’s on the rise.
Munster Rugby Community Coaching Officer Ray Gadsden, 20 years coaching, is in a better position than most to comment on the game’s growth locally.
‘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,’ he points out.
‘With the success of Munster, it’s opened the door for a whole new audience. We go into national schools and you see boys and girls wearing Munster jerseys.’
Now, more than ever before, rugby is available in more and more West Cork schools.
This untapped rugby market is now open, and prospering.
To do Eugene McCarthy’s contribution to rugby justice, we’d have to dedicate an entire sports section to the Bantry man.
He’s been immense out west for many, many years, and he has helped develop the game in West Cork more than most. His sons, Tadhg and Padraig, have both played at underage level for Ireland.
Now he works as a Community Coaching Officer with Munster Rugby and has played his part in the changing sporting landscape.
‘There are a lot of resources being put into rugby now – but the clubs are buying into it too and putting a lot of investment into coaching. Munster Rugby are supporting them as well,’ he explains.
‘We are running an emerging schools’ programme for the non-traditional schools which is an 11-a-side game, and that has grown hugely. All the towns in West Cork, including Schull Community School, are involved in that.
‘A few other non-traditional rugby schools are also interested.’
That Munster Rugby Emerging Schools’ Initiative has proved hugely popular, giving non-rugby playing schools an opportunity to play the game at U15 and U17 levels.
That also helps create a link between local schools and clubs, as anyone who enjoys playing with their school are pointed in the direction of their local club if they want to go and play 15-a-side.
Primary schools have also taken an increased interest in rugby, says Ray Gadsden.
‘We run a programme in the national schools and give them an opportunity to play tag rugby, which is mixed,’ he says.
‘That links in to the secondary schools as well so the players that enjoy playing tag rugby, then those that want to play direct, full contact rugby, we direct them to the clubs.’
So there’s a link now between primary and secondary schools to local clubs, that’s another pathway that exists.
Gadsden adds that Munster Rugby also hosts open days where they invite national schools in and get their local clubs involved as well.
‘Last year our growth has gone from 170 primary schools in Cork to 310 taking part, and a lot of it is coming from the schools coming to us to get involved,’ Eugene McCarthy says.
‘I think a lot of what the schools like is the tradition of respect in rugby, they like that, and that it really follows through into classrooms.’
Everyone is in agreement that the standard of rugby coaching in West Cork has risen considerably in recent times, at all levels.
Bandon RFC’s recruitment of Regis Sonnes has worked out better than most could have imagined, with the French man working with Bandon Grammar School (qualified for semi-finals of Munster Schools’ Senior Cup last year) and the club, both benefitting from his experience and know-how. He is leaving in the summer to take up the co-head coach job at Toulouse.
Sonnes is the exception to the rule, an already international calibre coach, and beyond him, all West Cork clubs are being powered by their coaches, all volunteers.
‘Through the coaching mentoring system that we have in Bandon, we try to prepare our coaches as best we can. We have a number of workshops throughout the year where we help coach the coaches and that has been been very successful,’ Dn Murphy explains.
‘We have been building this for a number of years. Around six years ago we recognised that there was going to be this potential coming through, and as well as having a relationship with Bandon Grammar School, we also recognised that it was important to have our set-up right too to allow kids fulfil their potential.’
On a Saturday morning, Bandon RFC could have 350 kids training, and that takes a huge job to co-ordinate and run smoothly – but they do, thanks to the help of their volunteers, coaches and parents.
In Skibbereen RFC, Mags Coombes says, ‘As well as the coaching, the structure and the organisation is excellent. We get our programme of games at the start of the season and we play those matches. We know how many games we’ll have, when we’ll have them, and the kids know the games are there.’
Again, Ray Gadsden is in an ideal position to comment, with a good relationship existing between the schools, the clubs and Munster Rugby.
‘In our coaching courses over the last few years we have had more and more coaches from West Cork attend, and then we go out and support the coaches on any issue they are having problems with,’ he says.
‘We will go out and workshop anything that they are not 100 per cent sure about.
‘We are not taking the credit for the players coming through, that has to go to the clubs and the club coaches, they are the ones doing such fantastic work at ground level and who work with players all the time to get them up to the required level. Once they are identified by us, they are then invited in to the pathway.’
West Cork might not have been a traditional rugby area but all that has changed.
Now we have young players choosing rugby over Gaelic football, like David McCarthy who played football with Castlehaven. We have a Dunmanway man who has played for Ireland, and Munster. We regularly have players in Munster and Ireland squads from underage up to U20. We have clubs – both men’s and women’s – winning Munster titles. We have clubs contesting provincial finals. We have women’s rugby players coaching and playing for Munster. We have the Munster Junior League Division 1 champions. We have clubs committed and dedicated to nurturing the game here, and giving the kids that come through their doors every chance of fulfilling their potential.
West Cork is not quite rugby country, but that’s phenomenal growth in the last number of years, and it shows no signs of easing up.
The conveyor belt of talent is strong.
Rugby, more than ever before, is now a strong sporting option in West Cork.