While the memorable Guinness Pro12 title win for Connacht last year grabbed all the headlines, the work being done at grassroots level in the province is ensuring there will be more glory days in the future.
As part of a concerted effort to continue the growth of rugby in Connacht, the expansion of the province’s Community Rugby Department has continued this season with more roles being created throughout the five counties.
At the moment, there are 10 Club and Community Rugby Officers (CCROs) working for the province with the ultimate aim to employ 15 CCROs to support all 27 clubs in Connacht and bring rugby to as many primary and secondary schools as possible.
Lyndon Jones is the Rugby Participation Manager at Connacht and has worked for the province over the last 10 years. He contributes to the development of rugby in Connacht from minis right through to senior level.
“Our big aim is to increase playing numbers and recruit players for the local clubs from primary and secondary schools,” says Jones. “It is great to get young people playing rugby in their schools and to see guys and girls then go out and play for their local club.”
An explosion of playing numbers and volunteers in the province’s 27 clubs means that there is more support needed from Connacht Rugby to assist these clubs with three more CCROs brought on board this year.
Jones says: “This year we have been able to create new roles with Buccaneers, a combined role with Galwegians/Corinthians, and in south Mayo with Ballinrobe RFC, Ballyhaunis RFC and Claremorris RFC – that is part-funded by Mayo County Council. We will also have a new position starting in Roscommon with Creggs RFC in September and that will be funded by Connacht Rugby, the club and the local County Council.
“That has added to the Westport/Castlebar joint position we have had since last year along with CCROs that cover Ballina, Monivea, Oughterard, Carrick, Castlebar, Westport, Sligo and NUIG.
“Most of the positions are funded evenly between the club and Connacht Rugby. We try to work with the County Councils as much as we can to make arrangements to pay a third each. We have done that in south Mayo with Walter Gibbons working with Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis and Claremorris and it has been a great success so far with good progress already made.”
The decision to expand schools rugby has also paid dividends with six competitions for schools of all levels now in place with the main Junior and Senior Cups supplemented by the Emerging and Development competitions.
In the main, much of the work being undertaken by the CCROs supplements the incredible work done by volunteers in clubs and schools around Connacht.
“We recently carried out a survey in the clubs across the province and there are over a thousand volunteers involved in the 27 clubs,” says Jones. “There’s huge work going on out there in clubs, it’s brilliant. If you look at the playing numbers over the past number of years, it’s exploded at youth and schools level particularly. There are now over 40 schools involved in the six competitions, up from 29 four years ago. Out of those there are 70 teams, there were only 46 teams involved four years ago so the playing numbers are increasing very quickly.
“It’s a combination of the great work by clubs and volunteers and Connacht Rugby’s CCRO scheme and staff. For example, Colm McWeeney up in Carrick has done great work. There’s not much rugby in the area at all but he has managed to get Abbey Community College and Elphin Community College in the Emerging Schools competitions this year for the first time so you have talented young kids playing who have never experienced game before. Other success stories over the years include CBS Roscommon – rugby only started in the school five years ago thanks to a couple of volunteers but their development has been incredible and they won the Top Oil Schools Junior Cup two years ago.
“In Ballina, our CCRO Russell O’Brien has done a stellar job with 11 or 12 secondary schools now involved in various competitions across all levels. Schools such as St Muredach’s College had rugby previously but Russell has completely reinvigorated it and they competed quite strongly in the Top Oil Schools Senior Cup last year.”
Sligo man Cillian Gallagher captained the Ireland U20s to victory against Italy in the 6 Nations last weekend and he is one example of the current crop of youngsters in the NUIG Connacht Academy that the CCRO scheme has helped nurture.
“Sligo RFC have been involved in the CCRO scheme for the last decade and if you look at the Ireland U20 squads over the last few years, quite a few players from Sligo have been involved,” says Jones.
“Cillian Gallagher, Conan O’Donnell, Matthew Cosgrove, Stephen Kerins, Shane O’Hehir and Ryan Feehily have all been selected in Ireland U20 squads. Sligo RFC have been investing in the CCROs for more than a decade and it is certainly paying dividends for them. The majority of their current All Ireland League squad is made up of guys who came through Summerhill College, Sligo Grammer and various schools throughout the county so it definitely works.
“The clubs and schools are at the core of everything we do at Connacht Rugby. We want to continue raising the standard of the club game and get as many people of all ages and all levels involved with their local club. It’s really important for the Club and Community Department to lay the platform at grassroots level for players to enjoy the game.
“If young Connacht players can go on and progress into the senior team and play for Ireland, that is just an added bonus for us but it all starts in the club and community game.”
For more details on Connacht Rugby’s Club and Community Department, please email [email protected].