Club Focus: Play-off is achievable for Leamy and troops
Ambitious Tipperary junior club Clonmel aiming for the senior ranks with third consecutive Round Robin series, writes Declan Rooney
Next Saturday will be a huge occasion for everyone involved in Munster Rugby, but for Clonmel RFC it has double importance as they seek to take a step closer to the Ulster Bank League for the first time, having fallen heartbreakingly short in the last two seasons.
In recent weeks the Tipperary club have been taking part in the Round Robin series, a qualifier tournament to see who graduates from junior to senior league rugby next season.
Last weekend they were crucially beaten by Malahide RFC from Dublin who clinched the automatic qualification spot, but Clonmel now go head-to-head with Omagh in Omagh, for the right to play off with the league's second last team for the final slot.
They might get finished up in time to catch the tail end of Munster's Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens, but, according to club secretary Tom Fennessy, it is a tough call for many of the club's supporters.
"We're still in with a shout of going up, but Omagh will be a tough trip. The bottom line is the winner takes it all," says Fennessy.
"Unfortunately it's happening on a day when Munster are playing in Lansdowne Road at 3.15pm. It is going to be a huge dilemma for our supporters. The minute we saw the fixtures and the times we said: 'Oh good God, could they not swap it with Leinster?' But that's the luck of the draw.
"Malahide were very good the last day, but in fairness I don't think the score reflected the nature of the game.
Fabulous "We were right in it at half-time and it was only late on that they ran in a couple of tries and upped the ante. They are a fabulous team, and they have a great set-up. You'd have to wish them the best next season.
"We'd be knocking on the door for that last few years. The first year we came very close to going up, but you really need a very strong panel once you face into Round Robin after a long season - the same goes for every club involved."
Under the stewardship of Munster great,Denis Leamy, last year Clonmel finished third in the Round Robin series and the previous time they finished second.
But having such an experienced former professional like Leamy in charge has been a huge lift for the club, and everyone at Clonmel RFC hopes they can retain his services in the future, as his reputation as a coach continues to grow.
This season his side were in super form in the Munster Junior League where they won 12 of their 13 games - their only defeat came in their final game at the hands of arch rivals Clanwilliam.
Defeat to Bandon in the Junior Challenge Cup ended their cup season earlier than they had hoped, but wherever they end up playing next season, Fennessy is confident that the club is going in the right direction.
"Denis Leamy has brought a new dynamic to the club in the four years that he has been involved with us as a coach. He is a most talented coach," he says.
"He has brought every one of the great characteristics that he had as a player into his coaching: his passion for the game; his sense of discipline; his organisation; and he has created a wonderful respect for the game and for the club among the players. Denis has really brought us on a great journey.
"We are hoping to go up but it is a real difficult hurdle. It is a bit like the Grand National, you get through the Round Robin and then you have to go away to the team that are on the way down from senior. There is always another fence to jump.
"The cards are stacked against junior rugby right across the provinces. You really have to battle against that to get in there. But then Cashel and Nenagh have managed to do it from our county. They have excelled in their own form in the AIL, and it is a real possibility for us to do it too."
Without a real injection of support from the local community Clonmel's adventure would have stopped in its tracks long ago. With that in mind, Fennessy is very thankful to their sponsors.
"Clonmel Credit Union are our main sponsors this season and they have been a great help - they're a great community-based organisation.
"They have signed up with us for the next two seasons as well and that's a great base to be able to work from."
Down through the years Clonmel RFC has churned out talented rugby players, but in recent times Munster has really benefited from their prosperous underage structure.
Irish international Dave Foley learned his trade at the club, while U-20 internationals and Munster seniors, Dave and Bill Johnston, also spent their formative years in Ardgeeha.
"We have been very fortunate that we have produced some really talented players over the years," Fennessy adds.
"Our panel is totally home-grown. Over the last three years that we have won the Munster league, 99 per cent of our players played underage with us at some stage. It is one thing we are very proud of.
"Underage is very strong for us, run by Noel Cunningham and Eamonn Dawson, they are doing a fabulous job. Denis is the top man and his plans as to how we play is seeping its way down through the grades slowly but surely.
"We also had a very good history with women's rugby in the initial stages of the game, but this year it fell apart for one reason or another. We have to really start now from the beginning again and start developing our underage women's game, to build another team. Next year we might have to get together with some local teams to get a junior team together, but we will look at getting that sorted quickly."
But for now, the best wishes of every Munster rugby club goes with Clonmel in the coming weeks as they seek to swell the province's numbers in the senior ranks.
"We have never aspired to AIL before. The first time we won the Junior League was three years ago.
"It will be a nervous day for all of us in Omagh and there will be divided loyalties for sure. Here's to two wins."