Mayo side preparing to battle hard in J1
Club Focus: Ballinrobe RFC
With a step up in a division comes an increased level of opponent and expectation, but Ballinrobe RFC are eager to get stuck into their new campaign.
The Mayo club enjoyed a really successful season last year as they earned promotion to Division 1B of the Connacht Junior League. As a result there will be much excitement around the town this weekend as they open their campaign away to Creggs this Sunday.
The Mayo side defeated Dunmore in the play-off last season to earn promotion to Division 1B of the Connacht junior league. But there was plenty of success elsewhere too as the club also enjoyed success in the Connacht Junior Plate in March as they defeated Dunmore 15-14 at the Sportsground in Galway.
Since the club was founded in the 1940s there has been plenty of highs and lows in its history, and after some initial success the club was dissolved for a period before it was resurrected in the 1970s by some local rugby stalwarts.
After that the club regenerated gradually before it enjoyed a great run of success in the early 1990s. The Mayo-based club won two Connacht Junior Cups in a row, the first coming in 1990 followed by a retention of the title in '91.
The main sport in Mayo is, of course, Gaelic football and a number of Ballinrobe's senior side play club football as well as rugby. At a time when the county is basking in the excitement of an All-Ireland senior football final replay with Dublin next weekend, it must be a tricky time to rally the troops, but the club is embracing the challenge.
Trevor Watson is a member of the senior side's coaching team, along with David Nestor and head coach Seamus O'Toole, and he noted the club's overlap with local GAA clubs.
"We'd have so many lads playing football. We'd be pulling from Gaelic football teams in Clonbur, which is in Co Galway but it's just over the border, Tourmakeady, Hollymount and the Neale especially," says Watson.
"We'd have a large contingent of Neale footballers in our squad. So this time of the year it's particularly difficult. Ironically, Mayo getting so far makes that even more difficult because the club championship here in Mayo has been put off.
"We'll be missing quite a few on Sunday because the lads are involved with their respective football teams. But you have to respect that as well. For a good few of them, football is maybe their number one chosen sport, so look, it's just part and parcel of rural Ireland and small rural communities. Everybody is involved with everything."
But despite the calendar and availability issues, Watson feels Mayo's prominence in football does not discourage children from playing rugby. The Ballinrobe native feels Mayo's exploits are a positive thing for all sports in the county.
"Kids want to try everything from basketball to rugby to hurling, to soccer and football. All you'd hope is that as many of them as possible would give it a go and whichever of them end up settling with it, so be it.
"I don't think Mayo's success would put anyone off playing rugby. You'd hope it wouldn't. In fact, you'd be hoping the direct opposite. You'd hope it would encourage children to get out and play sport of any code.
"If they start off playing football, as I did myself, and developed into rugby from there, then that's all the better. The main thing is for kids to be out and participating in any team sport. That'd be my philosophy."
The club are based in The Green which is in the centre of the town.
The club moved back to their traditional home in the summer of 2014 after spending a number of years based at the racecourse on the edge of the town.
Watson feels the move back to The Green has given the club a huge boost.
"The pitch needed to be totally redone so for years we played all our home games at the racecourse which is about a mile outside the town. Over the last few years, we did a lot of fundraising and got the pitch completely redone and built new dressing rooms and a clubhouse.
"We're back now in The Green in the centre of the town. Huge advantage for getting people to stop by for home games.
"The racecourse was outside the town and it was very open. It was very cold on a lot of winter's days with the weather we get in the West of Ireland!"
As well as the pitch itself, The Green also boasts a flood-lit training pitch. "It's great being in the middle of the town again.
"It's easier for people, even for training. We're very proud of the facilities we have now. It's brilliant," adds Watson.
Ballinrobe have had some success stories in recent years with a number of their underage players impressing. Matthew Burke is a member of the Connacht sub-academy and he currently plays his club rugby with Galwegians. Burke is also an Irish U-19 international and the London-born prop was nominated for Connacht's U-19 Player of the Year award last season.
Daniel Keane and Cillian Walsh were members of the Cistercian College Roscrea side that won their first ever Leinster Senior Cup title in 2015. Keane bagged a try on the day as Roscrea defeated Belvedere in the final.
Watson feels Connacht's Pro12 win last season will inspire children to take up rugby.
"You'd hope that it would have a huge effect. It was a phenomenal achievement. It generated a huge amount of talk on the streets and at grassroots level. There was huge interest in Connacht.
"That has to have a knock-on effect down the line to grassroots.
"You'd hope it would be a major factor in the development of the sport, especially at underage level."
Address: The Green, Ballinrobe, Co Mayo
Head coach: Seamus O'Toole
Captain: Robert Holian
Club President: Martin Gannon