Ballina aiming to be a real club for the community
Ballina RFC has opened its doors to locals while developing the next generation of Irish superstars, writes Ciarán McGreal
The colour green has always been associated with both Mayo GAA and the Connacht Rugby team.
Ballina RFC also don the colour, but as former president Gerry O'Donnell notes, in the early days the club drew its inspiration elsewhere.
"Originally the club colours were blue and white," says O'Donnell.
"We wore the Blackrock College colours because most of the people in the club were going to boarding schools in Dublin in Castleknock, in Clongowes and in Blackrock.
"Blackrock was the predominant supply of players to the club so they wore their colours for years."
Ballina RFC has been on the go since 1928 and over the years the club has established good relationships with many other high-profile clubs.
"Our fixture list would include clubs like Wanderers, Dungannon, Ballymena, Shannon and Lansdowne and we've always had those friendly fixtures," says O'Donnell.
"The reason we have those links is because past players from Ballina have moved on and have become players, captains, coaches or presidents of these clubs, so there's always been a link."
Ballina's first team are the pace-setters in the Connacht Junior 1A league, as David Newman and JP Leonard's men have lost just one league game this season. They will look to continue their brilliant form when they play host to NUIG this Sunday.
The club's underage structure is also booming. The minis section starts at U-7s and runs to U-12 and there are about 230 children registered in this bracket.
In youth rugby, the club fields boys teams from U-13 right up to U-19, as well as girls teams at U-14, U-15 and U-18 level.
O'Donnell serves as chairman of the club's youth committee and he feels the effort of the club's coaches, coupled with the success of Connacht in recent years, has led to the thriving underage set-up.
"We're lucky that we get huge help from people who do coaching. Our underage set-up is fantastic and the girls rugby is growing at a huge rate," he says.
"Our underage players come from Ballina, Crossmolina, Belmullet, Swinford, Foxford, Killala, Easky, Enniscrone, Bonniconlon and Tubbercurry.
"There are eight schools in the region playing rugby at the moment. Rugby is doing well in Mayo and it's really down to the success of Connacht.
"Connacht Rugby have pathways for the development of all the youngsters and they have coaching officers available to go wherever they're wanted.
"We have one here, Russell O'Brien, who is a huge help. Mick Moylett is another man. He played rugby for Connacht and for Ireland and he's a huge help at the coaching level. The success of Connacht and Ireland has invigorated all these youngsters to play.
"At the moment, from our U-19s down to our U-15s, we probably have about 24 guys on various Connacht teams and squads, which is really good."
One source of immense pride in the club is the fact that one of their former players, Willie Ruane, is the Connacht Rugby CEO.
"Willie is a clubman and we're very proud of the position he holds in Irish rugby," says O'Donnell.
"Not only that, but he was a very successful player himself."
For many years, Gavin Duffy was the club's poster boy. The full-back retired in 2014 having enjoyed an impressive career, in which the Ballina native amassed 10 Irish caps.
Duffy started playing rugby with Ballina and went on to make his Connacht debut back in 2001. He then moved to England for a spell with Harlequins from 2003 to 2006, before returning to Connacht.
With Quins, Duffy won the European Challenge Cup in the 2003/2004 season. Ironically, it was Duffy's Harlequins side that knocked Connacht out of the competition in the semi-final, with the Ballina man playing in both legs.
In the final, Duffy scored a try in Quins' narrow 27-26 victory over an AS Montferrand side which included notable French players such as Aurelien Rougerie and Olivier Magne.
Dave Heffernan also started his rugby career with the Mayo club. The hooker signed a two-year contract extension with Connacht last week, meaning he will remain at the Sportsground until at least 2019.
Heffernan made his debut for the province back in March 2012 and he has appeared in every one of Connacht's games this season. Despite his success, Heffernan has never forgotten his roots.
"He comes down and coaches our U-16s, U-17s and U-18s," says O'Donnell.
"He comes and coaches them, as does Gavin Duffy. John Cooney is another guy. His mum and dad live here in Ballina and John comes down coaching.
"We're very proud of David. His day will come. He will wear the green jersey of Ireland, no question about it.
"His father, Ivan Heffernan, and his grandfather, who was Ivan Heffernan also, both captained our club and both played for Connacht. So that's three from the one house that played for Connacht."
One of the club's aims is to facilitate the local community in any way it can.
O'Donnell spoke about the efforts of the club's current and past presidents in promoting that aim.
"The club is located on the edge of the town, which is quite a built-up area. For the past few months we've made our clubhouse available to all the residents' associations to use it for whatever they want.
"We're striving to make it a community club rather than just a Ballina rugby club. It's there for everybody.
"There's a new playground going in so parents can come to matches and the children can entertain themselves.
"Our clubhouse is being completely refurbished and we have very, very good driving forces in John Raftery and Alan Rowe.
"John is a past president and treasurer and Alan was president last year. Our current president is Jack O'Keeffe, who works very hard for us as well."