Club Focus: Tipp top club build from the ground up
Focus on underage section has allowed Denis Leamy's old club Cashel RFC to thrive in GAA heartland
Cashel RFC begin their Ulster Bank League Division 2A campaign on Saturday at home to Malone in Spafield, and for John Lillis it will be a nerve-wracking afternoon as he begins his first season as head coach of the club.
Preparations for this season began in July and Cashel will go into the game against Malone with confidence having defeated Thomond 26-12 at home last Saturday in the Munster Senior Cup.
It's been a steady couple of seasons for the Tipperary outfit, after an extremely successful year in 2011.
Five seasons ago their first team won the Munster Junior Cup, the Munster Junior League and the Munster Junior Clubs' Challenge Cup.
In the process, the club secured promotion to Division 2B of the Ulster Bank League.
The club's second team also enjoyed a successful campaign in 2011, winning the Munster Junior Two League, the Webb Cup and the Gleeson League.
For this outstanding performance, the club was awarded the title of Munster Junior Club of the Year for 2011.
Cashel won promotion from Division 2B in 2013 season, winning all 15 of their games that year and becoming the first club in the history of the All Ireland League to achieve that feat.
They finished fourth in Division 2A last season before losing to Blackrock College in the play-offs.
They also achieved their first Munster Senior trophy last season when the first team won the Cyril Fitzgerald plate.
Denis Leamy is probably the most famous player of recent years to begin his playing career at Cashel RFC. The former Munster No 8 became Cashel's first full Irish international in 2004.
Lillis coached Leamy as a schoolboy.
"Denis played underage with Cashel. Then he went to Rockwell and into the Munster academy," said Lillis. "People don't realise that Denis Leamy was a phenomenal place-kicker! He kicked for Rockwell in the Senior Cup."
Other notable players to have played for Cashel over its 97-year history include John Fogarty, Denis Fogarty and Paddy Butler.
John Fogarty was capped for Ireland against the All Blacks in 2010 and he had spells with Munster and Leinster. He also captained Connacht, representing them from 2003-08.
His brother Denis played for Munster for many years and acted as cover to hooker Frankie Sheahan in the 2006 Heineken Cup final.
Butler now plays in France with Pau having played for Munster between 2010 and 2015.
Pau have a number of big names on their books including Steffon Armitage, Ben Mowen and Conrad Smith, as well as former Munster players Sean Dougall and James Coughlan.
Butler is very highly regarded by the Top 14 club.
Rockwell College is a key feeder to the Cashel senior team and Lillis has a number of former Rockwell students at his disposal this season.
Committee member Peter Silke remarked on the significance of Rockwell's location, which is about four miles from Cashel's ground.
"Rockwell has a positive influence on our club. We're lucky to have an institution like that close by," said Silke.
Current Irish U-20 international Sean O'Connor also went to school in Rockwell and played club rugby for Cashel.
The second-row featured in the U-20 World Championship in Manchester this summer as Ireland reached the final.
Nigel Carolan's side ultimately lost the decider to hosts England but it proved to be a good experience for the players.
Cashel native O'Connor has moved to Garryowen for this season and Lillis feels his influence will be severely missed.
"He's a huge loss to Cashel but in fairness to Cashel Rugby Club, he went with their blessing," said Lillis.
"They didn't stand in his way. They're all about encouraging young lads to reach higher levels, which is great."
While O'Connor is a loss, Cashel have added James Ryan to their coaching set-up.
Ryan captained Cork Constitution last year and will bring good experience to the club as forwards coach, while head coach Lillis will also take care of the backs.
Between 2006 and 2009, the club built a new clubhouse and installed floodlights.
The club have three full-sized pitches and Silke praised the committee's input in improving and maintaining the facilities.
The club has approximately 200 underage players ranging from U-6s to U-18s and with those comfortable facilities, youngsters love joining the club and playing the game.
"All of the success we've had came as a result of a very good underage structure," said Silke.
"The committee worked extremely hard to put that in place and to keep it going. Without the committee, you have nothing.
"And also, the underage coaches, they deserve special mention as well."
The club was founded in 1919 and will celebrate its centenary in three years' time.
It promises to be a special occasion in the club's history, but planing for the milestone is still in its infancy.
Like all Tipperary clubs, and many of their fellow rugby clubs from the province, Cashel have to compete with GAA for players.
Lillis noted Munster's Heineken Cup victories in 2006 and 2008 as key moments in encouraging youngsters in Tipperary to take up the sport.
"You could see it in a lot of clubs in Tipperary. I coached in Thurles for years and you saw young lads, first of all, with the Munster jerseys on," said Lillis.
"Then when you came to the training sessions, every second young fella had a Munster top on.
"In fairness Munster came to the camps in the summer time.
"There used to be a phenomenal group of kids coming up to meet their heroes like Paul O'Connell. That's the only chance they'd have to see them up close and it did bring extra players to the club. No doubt about that."