Following their promotion back to Division 1 of the Munster Junior League KIERAN McCARTHY chats to Clonakilty rugby manager Eddie Knowles and the experienced Mike O’Hea about the turnaround in the club’s fortunes
ONE of the first things that Mike O’Hea noticed when he came back into the Clonakilty RFC fold before the 2017/18 season was that the fun had gone out of it.
When he left Clon in 2010 for work reasons, the club was competing in the senior ranks – but fortunes then nosedived dramatically.
In 2013 Clonakilty were relegated to junior rugby for the first time since 2001 as they lost their senior status. Back in junior rugby they struggled for several seasons in Division 1 and were then relegated to Division 2 in 2017.
It was a fast fall.
O’Hea spent almost six years in Sydney and could only watch on as the club slumped downwards.
Clon changed management after the 2017 season when local man Eddie Knowles, who previously played with the club, was drafted in to take over from Steve Forde. It was time to regroup and build again. Knowles was seen as the ideal man for the job. One of his first moves was to bring the experienced O’Hea back into the fold.
‘I had officially retired in Australia but Eddie got hold of the rumour that I was coming home, so two months before I came back I got a message from him asking would I get involved. I couldn’t say no,’ O’Hea explains.
‘I started off in a coaching capacity first and said I’d get involved with line-outs.
‘What I noticed when I came back in was that the fun had gone out if. That can happen when you’re fighting relegation for four, five years in a row.’
Clon’s first two seasons back in Munster Junior League Division 1 saw them finish sixth both times (2013/14 and 2014/15), but it got worse after that. The 2015/16 season saw Clonakilty finish third from bottom with three wins in their 13 league games. It was a similar record in 2016/17, and a series of results outside of their control ended with their relegation to Division 2.
Just six league wins in two seasons were dwarfed by 18 defeats, so confidence was on the floor. As O’Hea says, it wasn’t fun. That was a young team too and losing had become a habit that they couldn’t shake. Things needed to change. It turns out a few seasons in Division 2 were just what Clon needed to regroup.
‘Looking at it when it happened first, no one ever wants to get relegated but with hindsight you can see that it was what was needed at the time,’ Knowles points out.
‘It was the level we were at and we have built on those foundations and we’ve improved too.
‘Winning is everything and it becomes a mentality. Losing is exactly the same and there were a couple of years when things went against us at senior and we dropped to Division 1 and then to Division 2.
‘Changing a mind-set can be hard and it was easier to get back to winning ways in Division 2.’
That’s what has happened these past two seasons. In their first campaign in Division 2 Clonakilty finished fourth and enjoyed eight wins in 11 league games. That was a turning point. They will admit now that promotion last season would have come too early. They needed another season in Division 2 as Knowles blooded several young players who needed time to get up to speed with adult rugby and its physicality.
‘Two seasons ago we set a three-year target because our aim was to bring players through the underage system so in three years they’d be ready for Division 1,’ Knowles explains.
‘Last season we were competitive and did quite well but we didn’t deserve to go up, and that probably helped us this year.
‘It’s hard to get out of Division 2 because it’s so competitive and like you saw this year you have to win nearly every game. We didn’t have the squad last year whereas this year we had a few extras coming back into us and that helped us.’
The mood has changed before the start of this season. Knowles and his management team including Terry Dillon as backs coach and Mike O’Hea who was heavily involved in the line-out had Clon pointed in the right direction.
Clonakilty hit the ground running in Division 2 this season. The first season in the division helped the younger players find their feet. Jack Ryan, Olan Deane, Moss Downey, Eoghan Deasy, Aaron Hayes and JD O’Hea were all ready to make an impact – and they did. They needed experience to help them learn the ropes and that was crucial. O’Hea, Batt Duggan and Donal McSweeney up front and Mark Purcell in the back line were all key men to steady the ship and help the young fellas.
‘We have four or five old heads who came down from senior and they provided a lot of the leadership to the younger fellas who are between 18 and 20,’ Knowles explains.
‘Like a lot of clubs in West Cork we’re missing the 26 to 30 year olds that had to leave for work, so we needed to get the blend and the balance right. The older fellas were able to give that experience we needed to the young fellas who are used to winning all the way up through underage.
‘That’s another reason why a few seasons in Division 2 has helped. If you are playing at a higher level these young lads wouldn’t have got the chance to develop as fast as they have the past two seasons.’
Clon meant business from the start of the league. They opened up with a 28-10 bonus-point win away to Fermoy. Aaron Hayes scored two tries, the experienced Mark Purcell added a third and Batt Duggan got over the fourth try.
Momentum was building when they made it two wins in a row when Duggan, Damien Kozik and O’Hea scored tries in the 19-8 away win against Thurles.
‘I decided to play this season. There’s a good bunch of guys there and we needed a bit of experience in the squad, that bit of guidance,’ O’Hea explains.
Charleville were taken care of in Clon’s first home league game, a 25-13 win with tries from O’Hea and Hayes. Waterford City were next to fall as Clon scored six tries – Duggan (2), Hayes, Joe Crowley, Rob Howick, and Maurice Shanley – to make it four wins from four.
The 100 per cent record was kept up with an 18-12 win against Fethard before the top two met in early December. Mallow won at home 14-7. Damien Kozik scored a try converted by Eoghan Deasy but it wasn’t enough.
‘That’s the one that got away,’ Knowles admits.
‘While Mallow are a very, very good side, we felt that we played a lot of the rugby but we made one or two mistakes that they capitalised on. We didn’t take the chances that we had. We would loved to have had another game against them. They are a quality side but we feel we are every bit as good. That shows when you look at the final table – they won 13 out of 13 and we won 12 out of 13.
‘It helped in one way that we knew we were good enough to go up with them but we let that slip and let them open up a gap.’
Mallow wouldn’t be reeled in after the win against Clonakilty and they finished the campaign as Division 2 champions with a 100 per cent record. But Clon gave chase throughout.
They got back to winning ways against Kinsale (26-17) in their next league game in mid-December. That was a key result, says O’Hea.
‘We were second and they were third. That was a big game for us because whoever won that game would probably go on to take second spot,’ he says, and that’s how it turned out.
In their first two games in January Clon thumped Castleisland 76-0 and scored 11 tries that day. They hammered Old Christians 41-0 in the next game and scored seven tries. Wins against Cobh, Ballincollig and Muskerry followed as they guaranteed promotion as Division 2 runners-up.
Clon rounded off the league campaign with a resounding 33-19 home win against Youghal last Saturday by scoring five tries.
‘It’s a fun place to be again,’ O’Hea says.
‘It’s been very enjoyable this season. The mind-set has changed these last two years as we put the previous few seasons and two relegations behind us. Even for the guys who were there and played in those years when we didn’t win too many games, it was good for them to get back winning games too and to realise that they are not bad players but that it was a bad run.
‘We needed last season and this season to blood fellas and get them used to adult rugby.’
There’s silverware to show too from the season as Clonakilty retained the Munster Clubs Challenge Shield after an 18-7 win against Cobh Pirates in the final at Irish Independent Park. O’Hea was the two-try hero that day. Deasy added two penalties and one conversion.
‘To win the cup was fantastic for the lads, to get their hands on silverware. We had a few games in Irish Independent Park too which is great for the young fellas,’ Knowles says.
Clon aren’t finished yet. They’ve a County Cup semi-final against Bandon in the next few weeks.
Clon’s promotion means there will be three West Cork teams again in Division 1 of the Munster Junior League next season as they join Bandon and Skibbereen.
It’s going to be a step up in physicality and intensity.
‘We are a work in progress and we have a lot of work to do but this team is growing,’ Knowles said.
‘Coming from U18s into adult rugby is a big step so the second season in Division 2 certainly helped our young lads. Two years in Division 2 will stand to all these fellas when we go up to Division 1 for next season.
‘We are ready for it. Now is our time to go up. We will look to consolidate in our first year and be competitive and push on from there.
‘As a a club we are ready for it too. The structures are in place and a lot of work has gone on these past few seasons to get us to this place.’
O’Hea acknowledges that Clon will need to raise their game to survive in Division 1 but he has seen the potential in the team and knows that they can get better.
‘This season was very good but we know next year will be tough. With respect to Division 2 teams, it comes down to three or four sides in the race to go up. But in Division 1 every game will be an 80-minute dogfight.
‘A lot of it will be based on how we prepare. The lads will take confidence from this year. It will be a big pre-season and off-season. We need to get a bit fitter and a bit stronger.
‘We want to go up and be in the top half of the table and we’ll work towards that.’
The doom and gloom that surrounded their relegations is well and truly gone and Clonakilty are back in Division 1 as a better club and team. Knowles’ role in this revival cannot be understated. He has brought belief, a vision and a winning mentality to the club in his two seasons back. And he’s made it fun to play rugby for Clonakilty again.