Club Focus: Bantry Bay Women - Hicks leads the way as women's code thrives in West Cork
Thomond Park's back pitch hosts tomorrow's Munster U-18 Girls League final between Bantry Bay and Abbeyfeale (2.0 kick-off), and Bantry head coach Damien Hicks is looking forward to a red-letter day for the club.
The women's game is thriving in West Cork thanks to the dedication and hard work of volunteers like Hicks.
Born in Dorset, south England, Damien moved to Ireland aged 13 after his parents bought a farm in Bantry. Originally from Wales, Damien's father had a great passion for rugby which Damien inherited from an early age.
He began his playing career in 1993 with Bantry Bay's underage section and has since assumed many roles including coaching, groundsman as well as representing the club at committee level.
Playing loose forward for the Bantry Bay senior side Damien also coaches the club's mini section as well as the Girls U-13, U-15 and U-18 sides along with his fellow club stalwart Eugene McCarthy, who also plays an integral role with player recruitment and development at the club.
"Eugene and I were going into the local schools to introduce rugby to the girls which in a short time became very popular. The demand was so great the girls were asking if it was possible to play at club level and it took off from there really," Hicks says.
"We decided to put a plan in place to hold a 'give it a try' day. Over 20 girls turned up and since then our numbers have progressed steadily. We put a few advertisements in the local paper and the next thing we knew parents were ringing from all over West Cork looking for information regarding their daughters taking part. We formed a girls U-15 and U-18 side two seasons ago and just started off an U-13 development side this year playing 10-a-side rugby."
As Bantry Bay U-18 girls prepare for the Munster League final tomorrow Hicks acknowledges the huge achievement for a relatively new side.
"We are really looking forward to the final and have worked hard to get there," he says. "We have a great squad of players that include Claire Coombes (back-row) and Enya Breen (out-half) who have also been selected on the Munster provincial side. We know taking on Abbeyfeale will be a huge test but hopefully our hard work will pay off on the day."
As girls' rugby continues to grow at Bantry Bay, this season the club made history by fielding its first senior women's side, also coached by Hicks.
"They've won their two home games and lost two away games to date but things are definitely building. It's more of a development year to see what direction it's going to take. We have about four or five players that have come through our U-18s so in terms of progression thing are coming together."
Damien has strong family ties to Bantry Bay RFC. His wife Geraldine is on the Senior Women's squad, coaches the minis and is also on the committee.
"It's her first year playing rugby - she just wanted to give it a try and is really enjoying it. Like Geraldine, there are a lot of ladies on the team that up to this year have never played rugby before so having that bit of recent competitive experience has really brought on our squad.
"Many of our players have come from GAA backgrounds so they're naturally fit and have good ball-handling skills, which has been a big advantage from a coaching point of view.
"The players have a great work ethic and their commitment is phenomenal. There are three ladies coming from Beara - it takes them over an hour to travel for training on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as girls coming from college in Cork and one player who travels from Limerick."
Looking ahead, Hicks says one of the primary goals for Bantry Bay is to continue progressing girls' rugby within the club with a long-term objective of fielding a women's side that will compete at the highest level.
"We have to aim high and if we can keep the U-18s coming through to the senior ladies side then competing in Division 1 of the AIL would be achievable in the long term. Our greatest challenge will be holding on to our players - Bantry is a nice distance away from most colleges so expecting our players to travel mid-week for training potentially would be our biggest hurdle.
"If we can get over that I have no doubt we will be very successful. Our U-18s are flying - the talent in that squad is unbelievable and have the makings of a very successful senior side in the near future.
As the club continues to grow at all levels, Hicks predicts the girls and women's section will boast significant playing numbers in the short term and looks forward to being part of its ongoing success.
"I just love it", he stresses. "It still amazes me to see a girl walk into the club that has never played rugby before and develop into a great player full of confidence.
"That's what it's all about and as long as the players continue to enjoy their rugby we look forward to many seasons of success ahead."
Tomorrow - Munster League finals - U-18 Girls Bantry Bay v Abbeyfeale, Thomond Park Stadium (Back Pitch), 2.0. U-15 Girls: Listowel/Tralee v Abbeyfeale, Thomond Park Stadium (Back Pitch), 12.0