'The heroes of '97 set the standards for us to build on'
Club Focus: Midleton RFC
With two games to go in this season's Ulster Bank League, there are plenty of clubs looking over their shoulder worrying about relegation, while others are plotting their path to glory by picking up vital points in the coming weeks.
For Division 2C club Midleton, their slim chance of claiming a promotion play-off disappeared in their heart-breaking one-point loss to Bangor last weekend, and with ten points still up for grabs they also have concerns of the drop to deal with too.
If Midleton cannot claim another win, they could well be in a bit of bother.
With that in mind it is of some solace that they won't have to leave Cork for their remaining games. They host Bruff tomorrow afternoon at Towns Park (2.30pm) in one of the club's most important games in years, which is followed by a trip to Kanturk in the final round off their season.
Both games are winnable, but the two are tricky prospects too in a division littered with surprise results; 20 years on from their first promotion to senior level, it is an exciting finale.
Their recent win over relegation rivals Boyne brought a five-game losing streak to an end for the Cork outfit, as a season that promised so much early on, was derailed by the lengthy Christmas break.
With so much to play for in the next fortnight, they're keen to make amends, says director of rugby Dave Ryan.
"We felt it was very important to get the season back on track and consolidate our senior status," he says.
"A lot of clubs are champing at the bit behind us, so to get a couple of points clear of the bottom of the table was good. That's what the Boyne game was all about.
"There are only a few games left in the season, so we are keen to get as many wins as possible.
"Post-Christmas really hurt us between the jigs and reels. There was a long lay-off over Christmas and that was tough.
"Keeping lads interested over that two-month break is very hard, we just had to keep ticking over and we found it really hard to get back on track then.
"We started very well, we had ten tries after two games and we lost our way a small bit then. Losing to Tullamore home and away either side of Christmas was the killer, that's where we slipped up.
"It's a very funny division. The likes of Navan and Sligo (Midleton have beaten both this season) are making great tracks. Sligo had to win a play-off to stay senior last season and they could finish top this season.
"Any team can beat anyone on their day."
This season has been the first of John O'Neill's tenure as head coach, and, according to Ryan, the green shoots to be seen now will bloom next time round. A good blend of youth and experience is ideal in the AIL, and Ryan thinks they are close to the perfect mix.
"Long term we'd like to consolidate our senior status and build on this year," he says. "John's imprint is beginning to be put on the team. We will push hard for promotion next year and hope it builds from there.
"We have a nice mix of young and old lads at the moment. We have a young lad called Ryan Hogan who was U-18 last year. He is very promising and we have high hopes for him. He has been in the AIL squad for every game this season and every game he gains more experience.
"Then to the other extreme we have Aidan McCarthy and Kevin Brierly, who between them have nearly 500 caps in the AIL. Aidan is in his 19th season in senior rugby, an amazing feat."
In the late '90s it was Midleton RFC that launched the Munster career of Jason Holland following his arrival from New Zealand. After impressing with the club, 'Dutchy' was called up by Declan Kidney, a move that led to him becoming a provincial legend.
Holland visited the club recently, but nowadays it is the young local talent - male and female - who are getting their chance to shine in the red of Midleton.
"Underage is very strong in the club," says Ryan. "A big bonus to us is a lot of the former senior players are giving up their time and starting to coach each individual age group. We have them spread out over the grades and they are bring their experience to the lads.
"Our U-16s and U-18s have qualified for the pan-Munster in the last two years, which is great.
"Trying to hold on to those lads now is tough. Lads head off to college and join other clubs, but we'd love to see them staying on with us.
"We start them here at the age of six or seven so Towns Park can be a busy spot on a Saturday. We are into our second year with the women's game. We amalgamated with Youghal this year and that has worked out well. They have played six or seven competitive games, and numbers and results are improving all the time.
"With the women's World Cup taking place in Ireland this year, the hope is we'll see a bit of a lift here as a result.
"There is a lot of interest in the schools game - Munster have a CRO in St Mary's School now - so I think we'll see that trickle into the women's game in the coming years."
A few weeks ago the club paid tribute to their most successful teams, the 1996-'97 edition that transformed them from a junior to senior outfit for the first time. Twenty years on from their greatest day it would be fitting if the can lay the foundations for the future with another big win over Bruff and cement their status as a senior team.
"We had the reunion for that Junior Cup side, the team that got the club up to senior 20 years ago," says Ryan. "Those boys were the heroes of the town back then, after they beat Cork Con in the Junior Cup final.
"They won the league that season too with a 6-0 win over Thomond, a day that there was a massive crowd in Midleton for the match.
"We watched the game back on the night of the reunion and it brought back scary memories for a few lads, but it was those fellas that set the standards for us to build on."