'We started out small but have worked our way up'
Club Focus: St Muredach's College
With the Ballina RFC thriving at junior level, it was only a matter of time until that success found its way into the nearby schools.
Indeed, these were the schools providing the future players for their local club, and St Muredach's were always at the heart of this story.
The school, which was founded way back in 1906, was traditionally a GAA hotbed, but things have changed in Connacht in recent years, and in 2017 Muredach's were crowned the Connacht Schools Senior Development League and Cup champions.
Like so many other rural areas in the province, Ballina was hit by the rugby bug, and the school on the Sligo Road went along with it.
"St Muredach's started out with club players. There wasn't an active programme within the school five years ago. We spoke within the club and said it was an untapped resource," says senior head coach Russell O'Brien.
"We had a lot of players that were playing in the club and going to school there. We started with an U-14 group and entered them in the Connacht league. It took off from there and the numbers grew. We started off with one team in the school, and now we have three teams and a constant conveyor belt."
O'Brien is also the rugby master in the school. The 36-year-old Clonmel native moved west in 2002 and took up his new life in Belmullet where he met his wife.
Gruesome The former loosehead, who eventually swapped to tighthead, went to school in Clonmel CBS in Tipperary, and played with local Munster legend and Ireland international Denis Leamy on the way up.
But O'Brien's rugby career was cut short by a gruesome dislocated knee and ankle break just over five years ago, and now he spends his time passing on his experience to the fledgling talent at St Muredach's, and its surrounds.
"I love giving something back and seeing the players progress. Having played the game for so long and being able to encourage more lads and girls to play the game, and get the enjoyment out of it that I did, is fantastic," says O'Brien.
"I got my coaching badges as my playing days were coming to an end when I moved up here. And then I was lucky enough to get involved with Connacht Rugby, as an intern.
"I started off on the special projects for the last three years where I have been developing secondary school players in the north-west. Teaching rugby to places where it never was.
"We started off with only a few schools on board but now we have 21 school teams on the go in the north-west from Erris to Easkey."
But St Muredach's stood out in particular, and O'Brien knew there was massive potential there before he took the reins.
At the moment Ballina are competing in the Ulster Bank League Round Robin, and although they have lost their two games so far, away to Clonmel and at home to Omagh, the Mayo club are on the up.
It looks set to be only a matter of time until they reach the bigger leagues and with St Muredach's becoming more successful on the rugby field, it bodes well for the future of the club.
"The school are getting better all the time and we can always see the progress. This year was the first time that St Muredach's College won the senior development league and cup double," adds O'Brien.
"Not only that, but they have maintained an unbeaten record all season. Their junior team competed in the junior 'A' league final and they played in the junior development cup. The U-14s are just developing at the moment and I have high hopes for them coming in next year.
"As for Ballina RFC and the link between the two, Ballina have won the league for the first time in 32 years and they are currently playing in the AIL Round Robin. A team which has a lot of school players I have dealt with in the last three years, from schools around the region.
"Rugby hasn't taken over from GAA in St Muredach's just yet, but the tide seems to be definitely turning a small bit. Players are starting to see where they are best suited.
"A lot of them will play GAA as well, but rugby is the dominant sport in the school at the moment, because they are winning and Connacht Rugby and Ballina RFC are doing so well. The knock-on effect has been fantastic."
With Connacht Rugby's Guinness Pro12 success last May, it was obvious there would be a ripple effect through the province, with youngsters watching on and players like Bundee Aki and John Muldoon becoming their new idols.
But it's behind the scenes where the province is flourishing, and the outsourcing of community development officers to all corners of the province has changed the future of rugby in Connacht indefinitely.
That means losing your head coach Pat Lam to Bristol won't have a long-lasting effect, or even star names like Robbie Henshaw to Leinster.
Connacht have put in place building blocks that will stand the test of time and rugby in St Muredach's looks very safe too. "Connacht Rugby afforded me the chance to take up this role. We have non-traditional rugby-playing schools competing in provincial finals this year. They really have embraced it. It is enhancing the club as well as the schools game so they really work well together," says O'Brien. "St Muredach's have great support coming from their principal Leo Golden and their vice-principal Matthew Coldrick. And then their PE department there with Emmett Peyton.
"They really bought in to what we are doing and supported the lads. They encouraged them and saw the potential. They left no stone unturned for their development. There's no doubt that St Muredach's started off small but now they have worked their way up through the ranks.
"With training twice a week, they were playing schools matches during the week, and club matches at the weekend. So it is a great success story."