HEAD COACH of Skibbereen RFC juniors, Denis McCarthy has never experienced a year quite like 2020.
A global pandemic rendered local and national junior rugby obsolete but, thankfully, the West Cork club’s youth and underage structures have pressed ahead and are thriving in the most difficult of circumstances.
An increase in schoolboys’ and schoolgirls’ playing numbers has seen Skibbereen RFC play a vital role in the local community. Yet, despite their healthy underage structure, lack of full-contact training and regular matches has hindered the club’s junior team.
‘We never really got started this year despite completing one game,’ Denis McCarthy told The Southern Star.
‘The Munster Junior League was supposed to begin last October but then everything had to be shut down. That meant no group training, no one-to-one sessions with the players or gym work.
‘Our players have had to work away themselves really. They are all adults so you trust them to do the work individually. They will be found out quick enough if they don’t but to be fair to them, it is hard not knowing if or when the season will restart. Nobody knows.’
Of all the sports missing out due to Covid-19, rugby is suffering the most. Lack of full contact training means tackling, handling and passing technique cannot be worked on in a competitive environment. All players can do is stay fit and be ready for when the green light is given for a return to the rugby pitch.
‘There can be no change to men’s rugby until December 11th,’ McCarthy added.
‘It will all depend on what level of restrictions we are at on that date. Level 4 means no training or matches, Level 3 would be non-contact training in pods of 15 but no matches and Level 2 would mean a return to contact training.
‘Obviously, it is an evolving situation. At the start of the season (prior to full lockdown) we could have played matches albeit with no supporters. Right now, everything is just being tailored to the situation the country finds itself in.’
Fortunately, despite testing times at adult level, Skibbereen RFC has been able to function in a reduced capacity thanks to its underage structures.
‘Our underage playing numbers have definitely increased over the past months,’ the Skibbereen RFC junior manager stated.
‘Every training session is non-contact and broken into smaller pods. We are delighted to have been able to keep the underage going throughout Covid without taking a break.
‘That was vital for the kids themselves. Being able to provide them with a safe and enjoyable sporting outlet has been important for their mental health if nothing else. It is important that boys and girls from the Skibbereen area are out doing something.
‘I am not involved directly with the underage setup myself but the head of that particular area, Walter Young, is doing great work there. Our pilot programme ‘Give it a Try’ was a big success attracting a lot of new schoolgirls to play rugby for our club.
Teaching girls the basic skills and introducing touch-rugby has resulted in increased numbers aged 14 downwards getting involved.’
Delivering quality underage training is nothing new at Skibbereen RFC. This is a club that has produced current Munster first team player, first cousins Gavin and Liam Coombes.
Gavin was the first player from Skibb RFC to enter the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy, was also the club’s first player to earn a senior contract with the province and is in the form of his life right now for Johann Van Graan’s side with six tries to his name this season and two man-of-the-match awards.
Liam is also on an upward curve and signed his first professional contract with Munster earlier this year.
Unsurprisingly, the Coombes cousins’ graduation to the senior inter-provincial set-up – as well as being former Ireland U20s – is a source of pride for Denis McCarthy and his fellow club members. Having two local figures playing for Munster gives Skibb’s underage players something tangible to aspire to.
‘Gavin and Liam are flying it at the moment,’ McCarthy said.
‘Liam is coming back from injury but Gavin has been doing really well for Munster over the last couple of games. Gavin played junior 1 with us (Skibbereen) as soon as he was able.
‘His family are heavily involved in the club and his brother was our captain last year. Gavin is always available to help whenever he is around. To be fair to both lads, they come in and help out with our underage players whenever they are asked. There is never a problem with things like that, they are happy to get involved. For the kids, it is like having a couple of superstars around the place whenever they are here.
‘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.
‘Gavin and Liam were part of a very successful Skibbereen U19 team that also included David McCarthy, Tom Bushe and Donal Collins. They were always a very close-knit team having come through our underage set-up together. That shows that a pathway exists for other Skibb players to break through in the future.’
The current IRFU ‘Your Club, Your Country’ draw is allowing participating clubs like Skibbereen RFC the opportunity to sell their tickets, with 100 percent of funds raised going directly back to the club. In such uncertain times, Skibbereen are thankful to the local community for helping raise funds through the IRFU’s draw.
‘Every rugby club in the country is involved as it is an online draw,’ McCarthy pointed out.
‘There are some brilliant prizes on offer including a chance to join Ireland’s summer tour of the Pacific Islands in June 2021, a €5,000 holiday voucher and VIP packages for next year’s Six Nations Championship.
‘It’s very important to keep raising funds as best we can in the current climate and give the next generation of Skibbereen rugby players every chance of succeeding.’