Sunday 4 December 2016

Standing on the shoulders of giants - how Anthony Foley revolutionised rugby in west Kerry

Two decades ago, very few knew the rules of rugby in west Kerry - but today it has a thriving club, and all thanks to the success of the Munster side. Graham Clifford on how the Anthony Foley factor revolutionised the sport in this corner of Ireland

Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30

Shoulder to shoulder: Harry Curran waves the Munster flag in front of trainers Gary Curran and Mike Lyne and some of the young members of Dingle Rugby Club at their pitch in Corrig, West Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Shoulder to shoulder: Harry Curran waves the Munster flag in front of trainers Gary Curran and Mike Lyne and some of the young members of Dingle Rugby Club at their pitch in Corrig, West Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Anthony Foley was a regular visitor to west Kerry

As it soars between the posts, the damp leather sphere catches a glimpse of the sleeping giant beyond the wave.

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From here in the rugged West Kerry Gaeltacht, on Europe's most westerly rugby pitch, every view is inspiring. From the foothills of Mount Brandon at one end, to the Atlantic Ocean and the aforementioned Blasket island of Inis Tuaisceart on the other.

It's here where the children come to emulate their heroes in red - the men of Munster.

This week, while one 'sleeping giant' was laid to rest in his native Co Clare, players sat on the hollowed turf of the Chorca Dhuibhne rugby club in Gallarus and stared out at their own colossus, trying to make sense of it all.

Anthony Foley was a regular around these parts, you see. It was because of him and comrades like Mick Galwey, Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes and Peter Stringer that areas like this, one of the last places in the country where you'd expect to find a thriving rugby club, are in mourning this week.

"The last time I saw him was on the beach here with his two lads, playing away with them. That image of him as a loving father was in my head last weekend when I heard the awful news. It'd break your heart," says Gary Curran, chairperson of the Chorca Dhuibhne rugby club.

Formally established in 1999, the success of the club owes so much to the success of the Munster side led by Foley in the early part of the last decade. The Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and 2008 inspired local children to give 'the rugby' a try… in a place where GAA is king.

"Of course, Gaelic football rules the roost in these parts but there were always a few of us who were into the rugby over the years," explains restaurateur and publican Danno Keefe, who set up Chorca Dhuibhne RFC.

"Sure years ago, before we officially established the club, when we'd have the odd game here or there, Paidí O Sé played a few games for us," he explains with a smile. "But we used to list him as 'Paul' Ó Sé on the team sheet for obvious reasons. Other GAA greats like Liam Higgins played for us, too. There was always a quiet acceptance of rugby in Kerry I think, always a good group of closet rugby supporters."

Nowadays, the two sports happily co-exist in west Kerry. Indeed, the famed GAA pitch where the likes of the three Ó Sé brothers honed their skills is just a few fields away from the rugby pitch. Current Kerry stars Paul Geaney and Donnchadh Walsh both turned their hand to rugby union as younger men; Geaney was a very able scrum-half for Chorca Dhuibhne while Walsh lined out for Killorglin.

But it took the success and momentum of the Foley-inspired Munster to help truly change mindsets in non-rugby areas such as this. Because of them and their success for the province, children across Munster in the traditional GAA heartlands of Kerry, Clare, Waterford and Tipperary shared a common vision.

"I think what people loved about Axel and that Munster side in general was that they weren't polished. They were rugged like ourselves. We saw ourselves in them and them in us. Anthony was one or our own and we played because of him and the men alongside him," says Gary Curran.

Walking around Dingle this week, I spot some children in Munster jerseys and across west Munster the provincial flags fly quietly. Outside a school, on the gate posts of houses and in the town of Castletownroche in Cork, the red Munster flag gently flutters at half-mast in the communal green.

Foley was a regular visitor to west Kerry - it was here he'd unwind and relax away from the pressures of top-tier rugby. But there was always time to chat with locals, sign the few autographs and, on occasion, he popped into the rugby club to chat to the stars of the future 'as Gaeilge'.

At a schools' rugby blitz in Tralee during the week, an emotional Danno Keefe recalls how he found out about Foley's untimely passing.

"I was inside in the restaurant with my Munster jacket on last Sunday when a friend came in and sat down. He ordered a beer, which I thought was unusual at that time of the day. I told him I was off out to watch the Munster match and he lifted his head and told me there wouldn't be any match. He said Anthony had passed away in Paris.

"I didn't believe him at first but then he showed me the news on his mobile phone. I was shocked, I still am. They say you never forget where you were when John F Kennedy was shot or some other big event happened - well, I'll never forget when I heard about Axel. It will live with me forever."

The loss was felt particularly in Dingle. Foley used to visit in his school days to improve his Irish and later with his young family. Indeed, as Munster boss he brought his squad here on a couple of occasions where they'd stay in the Coláiste Íde boarding school during non-term time, row boats across Dingle harbour, train on the rugby pitch and go on treasure hunts around the town with local children.

The pitch at Gallarus is quiet this week, the rolling rain clouds sweeping in over the Blaskets casting a shadow over the white wash. Danno Keefe tells me how this remote field became home to the club which now has around 180 players, from under-age right the way up to senior.

"We got the field on a 21-year lease from local man Paddy Mahony. On it was an old slatted unit for cattle. We developed that into a clubhouse and actually made a right job of it and managed to get four dressing rooms into it. We got state-of-the-art showers and were able to put two pitches onto a nine-acre site and since then we've never looked back. Other teams tell us they enjoy coming back to play against us because it's a different type of venue. In the winter time, we have a bit of snow on Mount Brandon, it looks amazing."

We're interrupted as one of the Dingle girls goes over for a try and Danno nods his approval. The schools side from Coláiste Íde are pitting their wits against Cahersiveen's Coláiste na Sceilge.

"We bring them in to give them a bit of 'taithí' (experience) and some of the kids really embrace the game," he says, eyes fixed on the clash.

On a busy afternoon outside the north Kerry town, there are also sides from Tarbert, Tralee and Abbeyfeale here. There's a quiet revolution taking place in rugby across the Kingdom. Indeed, there are players such as 24-year-old JJ Hanrahan, from the Kerry village of Currow, who now plays with Northampton Saints, and 22-year-old Ultan Dillane from Tralee, who is on the books at Connacht.

"The success of the Munster team over the last 16 years or so has had an enormous impact on the spread of rugby in Kerry. Every year we run development squads across the province and now, without fail, we'll have a couple of Kerry players on those Munster under-18 or under-19 teams, so the quality of rugby in Kerry is getting better year-on-year," says Ray Gadsden, who is Munster's community rugby officer for Kerry.

When he first arrived from England to work in these parts, there were just three rugby clubs operating in the county. Now that number is up to eight or nine, with clubs in towns such as Tralee, Killarney, Castleisland, Kenmare, Killorglin and Abbeyfeale as well as Dingle and Cahersiveen.

Ray says the children who watched Foley and the rest of the team lift the Heineken Cup for Munster in 2006 are now the ones excelling in the game as young men.

The IRFU funding in Kerry allows for officers to visit primary and secondary schools across the county.

"We just want to give the kids an opportunity to play a game they may never have played before," explains Ray.

Across the province of Munster, the same structures have been put in place. The rapid progress of the sport can be attributed, in large part, to the legacy of Foley and his teammates.

"You know, when young lads looked at that team, they saw many men who didn't go to private schools. They saw the lads they might bump into on a morning coming out of the shop in their local village, lads from provincial towns. The likes of John Hayes, who came from a farming background; Mick Galwey, who won an All-Ireland with Kerry. Just ordinary, down-to-earth men who wore their heart on their sleeve," explains Danno.

And that infallible combination of success, passion, accessibility and recognition led to the Munster brand strengthening every year.

As the last decade progressed, more red Munster jerseys and jackets were spotted on the highways and byways of the south west. Thousands of vocal supporters attended home and away games. Cars full of Munster supporters left Dingle and Dungarvan, Cobh and Cashel, to cheer on their men. Thomond Park and Musgrave Park were redeveloped. Where once the club structure in Munster seemed exclusive, the fact that all as one followed the provincial side created unity and a rolling maul movement.

This week the rolling maul came to a stop. The sleeping giants are remembered and cherished - amongst them the legendary Kerry rugby great Moss Keane, who also passed away far too young. But this morning in Gallarus the kids will be togged-out and ready to go again. Among them could be the Axels of the future, born leaders who would love nothing more than to steer their beloved Munster to success each and every time they take to the field of play… just as Anthony Foley did.

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