New boys make mark in rugby outpost
Five years on from maiden game, Mullet Peninsula club thriving despite geographical disadvantages, writes Ciarán McGreal
The Mullet Peninsula is not the most densely-populated region on this island but thanks to a committed group of coaches, Erris RFC got itself up and running in 2010.
Club president John Keane has been involved with the club since the beginning. Keane played club rugby in Dublin for years and when he returned to Mayo, he got things going.
"I moved back to Mayo from Dublin, where I had been for 30-odd years, and I wanted my young fella to get a chance to play rugby," he explains.
"It was either take him to Ballina or start something here so I said we'd give it a go!
"That's essentially how it started. I tried to recruit a few like-minded individuals then to give it a go.
"I moved back in 2006 and we started playing tip rugby in the summer. It built over time and lads said they wanted to play serious rugby.
"We got on to the Connacht Branch then and Lyndon Jones was our first contact with the branch - he has been very good to us. He guided us through the affiliation process and then we entered a team in the league."
The club's first match took place in April 2011, when their U-16s took on Ballina in the RNLI Cup.
This cup was traditionally played around Christmas time when a Ballina selection would take on an Erris Exiles team made up of rugby players from Erris who were playing elsewhere. It acted as a fundraiser for the RNLI and nowadays, the game is held during the season.
Erris is located on the Mullet Peninsula, which is in the north-west corner of Mayo and is connected to the mainland at the Gaeltacht town of Belmullet. The club has members from all over the peninsula.
"We have the Mullet Peninsula itself and then we have the Kilcommon region down towards Rossport. Then we have Ballcroy, Bangor, Doohoma, the whole Barony of Erris which is a fairly large area but rather sparsely populated," says Keane.
"Even for the kids to come for training. You're depending on the goodwill of parents to get them there."
The club have a minis section which runs from U-8s up to U-12s as well as two youth teams at U-15 and U-18.5 level.
Sean Barrett, Scott Hogg and Alan Murray are on board with the club to help with the coaching.
Barrett played AIL rugby with Ballina, while Hogg is an Englishman who played rugby to a decent level. Interestingly Hogg is an uncle of Tottenham and England striker Harry Kane.
Murray recently joined the club to help out, despite not coming from a rugby background; the club are hopeful that a few more volunteers will get involved.
Four of the club's U-15 players are part of the Connacht Regional Development squad - Shay O'Donoghue, Darragh Padden, Nathan Connor and Robert Barrett.
Keane feels their inclusion is important for the club as a whole.
"They're flying the flag for us. For the rest of the U-15s as well, it gives them motivation. It's important to get your name out there. They're four decent players, they're committed," he says.
The club plan to swell numbers by getting involved with the local schools St Brendan's and Our Lady's Secondary School.
"St Brendan's supply most of the team at U-18.5 level," says Keane. "About 85pc of the team are from Brendan's. They play in the Emerging Cup and we coach with them. There's a junior side in Our Lady's and I coach them."
The benefits of Connacht's Pro12 success last season have been felt throughout the province and its significance did not go unnoticed in Erris.
The club's coaches brought the U-17 team to the Sportsground in the latter half of last season to see Connacht take on the Ospreys. The home side won 30-22, with Bundee Aki, AJ MacGinty and Matt Healy grabbing the tries, and Keane feelsit was great for the club's young stars to see their heroes up close.
"We took the U-17s down there at the end of last season so that they could get a look at what they're aiming for," he says.
"A lot of them wouldn't have seen a live rugby match, they wouldn't have gone to internationals or that. We did it as a thank you because we were runners-up in our league so we said we'd take them to a match to see what they're aspiring to."
Pat Lam's men came to Erris as part of their pre-season training in August last year, bringing a large squad up to the club.
"Rugby has a higher profile now than it's ever had, especially with the success of Connacht," says Keane.
"We had Connacht here in August 2015, they brought a squad of about 40. They really enjoyed their stay and it was great to have them.
"We claim it was their stay here (that won them the Pro12) because it was a week before they started the season!"
Like most rural rugby clubs, Erris overlap massively with the local GAA clubs in terms of their player pool.
"We draw from Belmullet, Kilcommon and Kiltane. They could be playing a different competition so we could be hit by losses from any of them," says Keane.
"A fella who's good at rugby will invariably be pretty handy at Gaelic or soccer. We have Erris United here as well. And we have a few basketballers and a few boxers!"
Despite being a newly formed club with limited numbers, the players take great pride in representing the club. Keane recalled a notable memory from last season when the club's U-14s side secured their first win of the campaign.
"They had a ropey enough start to the season. We came out then and we played I think it was Corrib and we beat them. We came in afterwards and we asked them, 'How does it feels guys to have actually won a game?'
"And one young fella said, 'It's like when you get a new pair of socks, it's all fuzzy and warm!' I thought it was a brilliant quote!"
Address: Kilmore Community Sports Field, Drum, Belmullet, Co Mayo
President: John Keane