Tuesday 18 June 2019

Club Focus: All Blacks continue to build on rock-solid foundation

Daragh Small hears how love of the game sees it continue to grow in Galway outpost

David Keogh, Barry Gibbons, Eugene Conroy, Derek Heanue and Sean Joyce in a scrum
David Keogh, Barry Gibbons, Eugene Conroy, Derek Heanue and Sean Joyce in a scrum

Daragh Small

The Monastery Field is one of the most picturesque rugby homes in Ireland but the Connemara All Blacks are determined to add quantity to the quality that's already there.

Flanking the Salt Lake, the pitch provides a stunning backdrop for the side who are one of the most competitive in the province and currently lead the way in the J1A League.

However, club president PJ Heffernan wants to see his local side continue to flourish off the field too. And he still has plenty of work to do before he hangs the blazer up in 2019.

"I am nearly at the end of my tenure but it's a bit like Heartbreak Hotel, once you check in you can never check out," said Heffernan.

"It's a case of my presidency is up in May now but it doesn't mean you will stop being involved in the club, you keep doing what you were doing without a blazer.

"It's a great honour. At the moment we are halfway through the season, we are leading our J1 league. It's a great position to be in to be going around to the other clubs and saying this is Connemara, this is what we are all about.

"And you can bring the lads everywhere because they are so mannerly, they respect people and their property. It's brilliant."

Originally from Ballyglass, Co Mayo, Heffernan is a chef and decided to move to Connemara when a job became available in Renvyle House Hotel.

From there he met his wife, Maureen, and now they have four children. Oisín (23) has played 20 times for Ireland U-20 and is currently plying his trade at Nottingham, Fionn (19) is back playing with Connemara, daughter Roisin (22) is a future referee while Tara (25) is also a big rugby fan.

"Rugby is part of our life. We eat, sleep and breathe rugby," said Heffernan.

"The club is the same and even as president of the club they gave me an additional job this year of being pitch manager. From lining pitches, everything, it's great."

Connemara don't have any relationship with New Zealand and that's not where their All Blacks name came from either, that is associated with the fishing fly, the Connemara Black.

"I hope that we go on and have a successful league and cup campaign and there would be silverware coming back to the club at senior level this year," said Heffernan.

"There is always cups coming back at mini and junior level but unfortunately the way Connemara is we lose a lot of player to college and jobs. We are a 56-mile outpost.

"You cannot stop progression of young lads and girls going off to college. We are a tourism area, we don't really have high-tech industry.

Progress

"They have to go forward to progress themselves."

Connacht full-back Tiernan O'Halloran played underage rugby for Connemara in the past and with the demand for rugby at the moment it won't be long until someone from the club follows in his footsteps.

But Heffernan realises it's crucial that the club president facilitates these players by providing the best facilities possible. You would love to see us get our second pitch going, more people, more footfall," said Heffernan.

"The area we are in we would love to get a greenway around the Salt Lake to encourage people to come out and walk.

"If there was something on they would come and watch. Get a new fit-for-purpose clubhouse and dressing-rooms. You would love to see that in the next five to 10 years.

"The pitch would be more imminent and then the other amenities."

O'Halloran has played six times for Ireland and Oisín Heffernan could be the next Connemara man to make the grade at that level. PJ Heffernan began to get involved with the club when his eldest son started to play.

"The club has been proactive in minis and youths all through the years. Oisín used to get on the rugby bus and head into town on his own," said Heffernan.

"You never had a fear or anything because you know with how well the club was run your son was safe and in good hands without being there.

"Then as part of my job I am a chef, so you would end up cooking barbecues, feeding kids. It's sort of a progression into it.

Prop Heffernan came through the Leinster academy but when a professional contract wasn't offered there he decided to move to England.

"He is over in Nottingham hopefully with the idea to get back into one of the provinces again," said Heffernan.

"There is such competition there at the moment. But he has the right attitude to progress.

"Fionn was injured for the last three years. He successfully got an operation done over a year ago in London and he is back playing with the Connemara firsts now.

"Roisin is in college in Galway. She was playing with Castlebar RFC last year but unfortunately they don't have a girls team now this year. So now she is involved with GMIT in Galway.

"She is helping out in the club here too. Her next thing, I have signed her up already, is a referees' course.

"My eldest daughter Tara works in property management in Edinburgh. She doesn't play but loves watching rugby too."

Rugby is alive and well in Connemara and the Heffernan household plays a huge part in the successful running of the club.

But PJ Heffernan knows that he couldn't have taken on the presidency were it not for his wife. They own the Off the Square restaurant in Connemara together.

"Being a president of the club you are nothing without your wife," said Heffernan.

"You have to have people in place to run it or look after it and that's where my wife comes in. To enjoy rugby you have to have someone behind you to allow you to do that. And I definitely couldn't do the rugby and run a restaurant without her."

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