School Focus: 'Sport can provide your best memory from school'
Abbey Community College in Boyle has tapped into Connacht's Pro12 success to grow rugby in new territory, writes Daragh Small
David Harding had a vision when he became principal of Abbey Community College in county Roscommon at the start of 2016-17.
The north Tipperary man had swapped Lough Allen College in Drumkeerin for the Boyle school, and his dream was to create a rugby team there for the first time.
"When I came here I sat down with the students and asked them what was good and bad about the school," he says.
"One of the things they wanted me to do was to look at the area of sport and broaden their options.
"I used that as an opportunity to try and get rugby over the line."
The building blocks were there, with a skilled and dedicated set of students completing their junior cycle in the school, Harding could call on the expertise of team manager Aengus Martin and head coach Colm McWeeney.
Art teacher Martin is a former St Micheal's student from Dublin, so rugby was in the blood, while McWeeney is the community rugby officer for Carrick RFC.
The trio worked diligently to ensure that Abbey College could field a team, and then keep them together, before they sensationally captured the Connacht Schools Junior Emerging Cup at the first time of asking this year.
"We got great sponsorship from Sinead Devine Accountants. She was very kind, she sponsored a full set of jerseys for us. Her family are heavily involved in rugby too," says Martin.
"A local gym, StrongLife, put the research into looking up plans for young players and then put together a work-plan for us as well. The kids were going over there to do a bit of strength and conditioning."
Captain Max King touched down twice as Abbey College claimed the Emerging Cup with a 24-18 victory over St Joseph's Foxford last month.
It was the culmination of a lot of hard work, and it hasn't gone unnoticed in the surrounding areas, where rugby isn't as freely available in other schools.
"I get a lot of enquiries, there is a certain benefit from this. Students want to transfer to Boyle from other schools because rugby is in place here," says Harding.
"For many parents and students, rugby is a very attractive sport and they want to play it."
But it's not just on the rugby pitch where Abbey College excel from a sporting perspective. Earlier this week, their U-15s soccer team claimed the Connacht B Perpetual Cup with a 2-0 victory over Grange.
The girls and boys have always been successful in GAA and basketball too, so it was the perfect formula to try out rugby at the start of this year.
"The way you describe Abbey College is 'brand new'. What we have is a school team which draws from Sligo RFC and Carrick RFC and they learn their rugby in those clubs," says Martin.
"It's like when Joe Schmidt puts together his Irish team, the players there learn their rugby playing for the provinces and then they go into him in Irish camp for fine-tuning.
"We know we can't create something here, but we can build on what's coming into us and that's the way we work. We are going to try and develop that further next year.
"Hopefully we can feed that back to Connacht as something they can use too. Rugby isn't easily brought in, but the volunteerism that goes on in the clubs is incredible.
"Whatever success we get this year really relies on the success Connacht have had and the structures they have been building for the last ten years."
Connacht are the reigning Pro12 champions after they beat Leinster in the final at Murrayfield last May. It was the story of the rugby year when Pat Lam's side made it all the way to the final, against the odds, and then defeated their provincial rivals playing a wonderful brand of rugby.
That winning feeling has trickled down to places all over the province, places like Boyle. And Connacht coach Lam has made sure that all corners of the province have been catered for since he arrived.
"The influence of Connacht's success can't be understated. About two years ago the Connacht rugby team had a training session up in Carrick-on-Shannon," says Harding.
"We brought two buses from the school in Lough Allen where there is no rugby at all, but there was such demand to meet the players and watch them train."
That was the perfect example of how the people of Connacht have taken to Connacht Rugby, and now the youngsters want to get out there and emulate their heroes.
"Giving them a school to play for, that's what they love as well. The guys here in Boyle have really bought into this idea of playing for their school, crest and town," said Harding.
"That is the key thing that we are trying to push here. The huge value of playing for your school."
Abbey College had just one rugby team in the Junior Emerging Cup this year, and they went all the way in that competition.
The possibilities are endless for this school if they continue to fulfil their potential, with the right people in charge.
And their principal is determined to give these students the opportunities to create some very special memories.
"Not every student is going to be a teacher or a Guard or a professional," says Harding.
"If you ask yourself what are your memories from secondary school. Mine revolve around one day I scored 2-4 in a challenge match. Or they will revolve around that brilliant basket you scored, or a try-saving tackle.
"If you ask them children in ten or 15 years' time, it will be something like that, not how many points they got in their Leaving Cert.
"That's not to down-grade the importance of teaching and learning - that is our primary function as a school. But for the students it will be something about achievement by a team they were involved in."