'Sense of place' key to success of top club
Connection with the local community and families means Dooradoyle outfit continues to set the standards, writes Declan Rooney
With more Munster Senior Cups to their name than any other club in the province and more than the rest of Limerick combined, there is no doubting Garryowen's stature as one of the pillars of the club game in the province.
Three All-Ireland League crowns have been claimed by the club over the years (1991, 1994 and 2007), but it has been a topsy-turvy few years in the recent history of the club. At the end of the 2010-'11 season the club finished bottom of Division 1A, but relegation was avoided as the league was moving from an eight- to ten-team structure.
A second-place finish two seasons later hinted that the good times might be on the way again for the Dooradoyle club, but a first relegation in the club's history followed the following season. That left just one Limerick club - Young Munster - in the top division, but that shot in the arm brought about a new era in the club's history.
According to Garryowen's vice chairman, Eoghan Prendergast, it was crucial that an immediate return to Division 1A was secured, and now that they're back where they belong, he's hopeful that they can once again challenge for honours under home-grown head coach Conan Doyle.
But whatever period in the club's history we're talking about, the family ethos of Garryowen has always been at the core of their principles.
"Over the years we have delivered a number of trophies, and there are families that were central to those. Family and community is at the core of the club," says Prendergast.
"As late as last week, our chairman of rugby David Hayes, his mother unfortunately passed away. Her brother was Tom Reid, who was a British and Irish Lion back in the 1950s. They were cousins of Paddy Reid, who was part of the 1948 Triple Crown team, but he also passed away in the last number of months.
"There is a lot of family connections there. Even in the current day you have cousins playing alongside cousins. The community engagement and involvement is very important to us here."
That sense of 'place' starts at a very young age in Garryowen, and for some families there is no avoiding a light blue jersey with a five-pointed star on its chest. Wallace, Wood, Ward, Varley and Murray are all familiar names and all Garryowen names.
Eoghan's ancestors Tom and William Prendergast were two of the founding members of the club back in 1884, but he is the first member of his clan to serve as Garryowen president back in 2011-'12. Eoghan played as a prop forward in the years before the introduction of the All-Ireland league, and his son Eimhin has togged out for the U-20s of late, part of more than 550 active playing members.
But the club's vice chairman admits he is concerned about a disconnect that is appearing in the game as young players graduate into the fringes of the professional game and are almost lost to the club fields.
"Limerick rugby unfortunately is not as a strong was it once was, but there is a far greater connect needed between the clubs and the locality. It's not because we just want our own players back - of course we want Garryowen to win whatever we are in - but we have an eye on the wider picture as well. There is a bit of a disconnect there which is unfortunate.
"It comes down to the fact that players want to be out on the pitch, be it for their club, their province, whoever. Players want to be out playing.
"I just worry that young fellas today - and I don't mean to sound glib or to offend anyone because I think about it a lot - their sense of place is a gym now.
"They are smashing young lads, they are interested in the history of their club and are keen to learn. And whatever about the public, they'll get on with their lives, but the players are being kept a little bit apart from the communities from which they came."
But right across the country, clubs like Garryowen are trying to bring the community back into the club. All summer long there has been rugby camps for youngsters at Dooradoyle, while on Thursday nights the club regularly host tag rugby at the venue.
Like a lot of traditional rugby people, Eoghan was sceptical about the game of tag when it started first, but he really has had his eyes opened, he says.
"Tag has been crucially important in spreading the game. The men might not necessarily have played the game before, but the amount of women that are now involved in the game is amazing. There is a great social side to the game, but it has a vital role to play in getting women back into sport.
"Girls can fall away from sport once they leave school, but it doesn't really matter what the sport it. Just playing a sport is the important thing. If you look at the age profile of the girls playing the game they are all 20 or 21, that sort of age. It is a vital outlet for them.
"In the end, you have men and women playing together with a smile on their faces. What more can you ask from the game of rugby?"
Of the 550 playing members of Garryowen, an estimated 450 of those came from the efficient underage structure in the club. As part of the condition of professional players and foreign coaches coming into the club, there is an obligation on the big names to spend time coaching and encouraging the youngsters.
Currently Denis Leamy and BJ Botha are involved with the Garryowen senior team and they get stuck in on Sunday mornings. Having their heroes nearby and willing to pass on their skills, is a big deal to youngsters, says Prendergast.
"That is one thing we've always asked of our coaches, that they help out with the kids. They are the lifeblood of the club and having them coming in every year is vital to our future.
"Over the years, like all of our coaches, I've done some coaching with the minis and up through the grades, and that's where the real enjoyment of the game comes from. Once we keep our underage structures sound, we are going in the right direction."