'If we get the foundations right, the club grows'
Burgeoning Mayo club bid to kick on in their new home as they preach message of safety and enjoyment, writes Ciarán McGreal
There's no doubt 2009 was a memorable year for Irish rugby fans with the national team winning their first Grand Slam in 61 years, but it was doubly significant for the rugby community in Claremorris as Claremorris Colts RFC got up and running.
Born out of a tag rugby tournament, the dedication of its committee and coaches has seen the club go from strength to strength, with the Colts now boasting a membership of nearly 300.
Club secretary Kevin O'Malley recalls the club's early days.
"There was a tag rugby league run in Claremorris in the summer of 2009," he explains. "A couple of the people involved in that decided to set up a rugby club in the town with the help of Lyndon Jones from the Connacht Branch who was the community development officer at the time.
"In the first year we had mini rugby which was from U-7s up to U-11s and we had about 80 players."
Seeing Brian O'Driscoll lift the Six Nations trophy was significant in inspiring interest in the sport but the town did have a club years ago which disbanded.
But O'Malley insists that the Colts are here to stay.
"Obviously the increasing profile of the game would have contributed to the interest at a local level but Claremorris historically is a GAA town," he says.
"There had been a rugby club set up in Claremorris before. It lasted for a couple of years and then died away. We were determined that that wasn't going to happen."
The most impressive element of the club's success is the fact that it has not had its own facilities. The minis train on Mount Michael Convent Secondary School's pitch, while the youth and adult teams train at Hollymount-Carramore GAA's grounds.
In 2012, the club received 5.6 acres from the Claremorris Racecourse Committee to build a pitch, and developments are well underway. The aim is that the club will be playing on this pitch by September this year, which will give them their first home. The facilities will comprise a pitch as well as two training areas.
Having their own facilities will help ensure that Claremorris RFC can continue to grow and cater for its expanding player base.
A large percentage of that player pool is made up of underage players. The minis section starts at U-7s and runs up as far as U-12s, while the club also fields youth teams at U-13, U-14 and U-15 level.
Claremorris Colts also cater for girls - they were one of the first clubs in the country to have a girls-only minis section separate from the boys.
"We had a large number of girls playing initially but the number started to drop," recalls O'Malley.
"We reached out to the parents to understand what happened. It was very simple; the boys wouldn't pass the ball to the girls! So we solved that problem by having girls-only mini rugby.
"We were one of the first clubs to organise a girls-only mini rugby section."
The safety of players is central to Claremorris' operations and the club has extensive child welfare policies in place which are well regarded.
"Our child welfare policies around 2012 were being used by the Mayo Sports Partnership as an example of how to do things correctly," says O'Malley.
"The IRFU have an action plan in place to get everybody up to a certain level in terms of child-safeguarding. Last year we had the green light on that.
"We were one of the first clubs in the country to have a set-up in place correctly and implemented properly. Getting things right at the foundation is very important to us.
"If we get the foundations right, the club grows. That was the philosophy right from the start."
Most of the club's coaches have extensive experience with first aid, meaning the club is well set up to deal with any issues that arise.
"The vast majority of our coaches with mini rugby are first aid qualified. The IRFU offer a Safe Rugby course whereas we are Level 5 FETAC first aiders so that if we have an issue on the pitch, we all know what to do," adds O'Malley.
"A lot of people say 'First aid training? I don't need that'. You don't need it until there's an issue and then it becomes invaluable. If there is an issue, we know what to do and what not to do."
The club's junior side play in the Connacht Junior 1C league and are coached by Michael Smith and captained by Liam Griffin, who represented the Connacht Junior team in 2016.
Claremorris play all their home games in both junior and youth rugby at Dunmore's pitch.
"Without Dunmore we wouldn't be able to play any games," says O'Malley. "We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dunmore. When we started playing youth rugby initially we conceded all our home games.
"We were training on the soccer astro-turf in Claremorris, which measures 60 metres by 30 metres. Our kids would go out and we were getting absolutely hammered in the first half of every game because everything was going up the middle. The kids weren't used to training on such a vast expansive space. But every game we'd win the second half because they'd figure out the space and they'd go and play rugby."
Claremorris take safety seriously but the committee are aware that it is important for the children to enjoy themselves and to be safe doing so.
"The children have to enjoy themselves. That enjoyment is dependent on the child," says O'Malley.
"It could be the children running around having a good time at U-7s or it could be an U-15 player who's very competitive. They have to have their competitive instincts fulfilled.
"That's their enjoyment, and as long as they are enjoying themselves, they'll come back."
The development of the pitch will be a massive step forward for the club as it looks to continue to promote the game of rugby in the town of Claremorris and beyond.