Club Focus: A real love of the game has grown out west
Long-laid foundations are reaping huge benefits as interest in rugby in province widens its reach, writes Daragh Small
GAA, and specifically Gaelic football, has always dominated towns on the border between Galway and Mayo. But along with the rise of rugby in the west of Ireland came the success of the province, and Connacht Rugby's triumphs are now being lived out on the pitches in places like Headford.
Corrib RFC has been around for quite a while, and long before Connacht ever became successful. But still they need a spark to build a player base with Presentation College Headford, and Connacht's Guinness Pro12 success in 2016, doing the needful.
The school had already begun to foster the idea of playing rugby at a high level. And indeed they had teams in Connacht junior and senior development cups. But now the pupils knew that anything was possible, and even a team from a GAA hotbed could prosper on the rugby field too.
"The success, it generates interest and people go up to the Sportsground and they see the matches and they get interested," says head coach and rugby master Pádraic Mohan. "It's been huge because it has given people an appetite for the game where they might not have had an interest before. Now the kids want to go into the Sportsground, wear the jerseys and play rugby.
"When they see the game being played they want to try it. And every chance we get we try and keep them interested."
Mohan has been a godsend for rugby in the school, and with the help of Corrib Rugby, PCH has been able to establish itself on the rugby map alongside some household names in the province.
Survive But then again Corrib wouldn't have been able to survive were it not for the help they received from the school. And they continue to grow stronger and stronger, with the growth of the sport in PCH.
"What's unique about PCH and rugby is that PCH and Corrib RFC have been interlinked since the foundation of Corrib Rugby," says Mohan.
"The pitch in Corrib Rugby belongs to the Presentation Sisters and they basically facilitated having a pitch in the early days. We built our new pitch in 2000 with a stand. We share the facility. It's unique in Connacht. There's very few schools with that facility."
Mohan is from across the north Galway divide in Mayo, and he began his Corrib RFC career in 1990. Four years later, Corrib won a Connacht Junior Cup and he concluded his playing days when he was 36.
Despite their relatively good success Corrib didn't have mini-rugby until 2009, and the turn of the new decade brought with it some unprecedented success for the club and school.
"We started mini-rugby with the U-6s and U-8s. I got involved with that then and we kept that going, and put a few teams in," said Mohan.
"We got an U-13 team out then. Then myself and Mike Lee, the president of Corrib now, went into the school about four years ago in 2013.
"We entered a team in the Connacht junior development cup that year. We played three games, won one and lost two - we saw a bit of potential there.
"The next year then we entered a team in the junior development league. We got to the semi-final of the league. And we got through to the cup final in 2015."
Things had kicked off well in the school, and as Connacht began to get more successful at the Sportsground, the interest in rugby in the town of Headford grew and grew.
"We entered two teams then. In 2016, we entered a team in the junior development league and senior development league. The junior team won the league in 2016.
"The senior team won a couple of matches. In the cups that year we entered the junior and senior development cups but we were knocked out of both in 2016. This year we just went with a senior development league, and development cup.
"We won all of our pool games in the league and got to the semi-final and Athlone beat us in that. And in the cup we went all the way to the final and St Muredach's beat us in the final.
"Going forward we want to keep rugby going in the school, get more people involved. And use the relationship behind Corrib RFC and the school to build on those teams.
"Hopefully get more people involved in coaching. If we could get a teacher that has rugby experience it would help us."
And despite GAA being No 1, closely followed by soccer in the town, rugby is growing rapidly and a lot of that is down to Corrib RFC who continue to make strides too.
The club and school are intrinsically linked and as long as they both work together it looks set to be a long and prosperous relationship. "It works really well for the club. Especially the senior team, the fall-off in club players seems to be around 17.
"This year in the club we didn't have an U-18 team but the senior team in the school meant that the guys got about 14 games of rugby," says Mohan.
"There would be about six or seven guys who were overage for U-17 and that was their rugby for the year. It was enough for them, they are in Leaving Cert and it filled a hole for them.
"But rugby's growing in popularity hugely, it's the fact that we can go in there and get lads involved. There's a huge interest and we got to the final in the Sportsground this year and there was at least 1,000 people from the school and the surrounding area that came up.
"It's taking off and if we can keep people involved and keep the relationship going, there's a good chance it could become a close second to the GAA.
"A lot of our fellas play the GAA but the rugby has really taken off."