Saturday 25 November 2017

Club Focus: Aristocrats fighting to stay among the elite

Falling number of boarders affecting Sligo Grammar stronghold, but ethos and structures ensure they remain a force, writes Daragh Small

This year’s senior team
This year’s senior team

Daragh Small

Summerhill College have reached two Connacht Schools Senior Cup finals in the last three years, but they have still to win one, and ten-time champions Sligo Grammar remain the traditional rugby school in the county.

They haven't been in a Senior Cup decider since 2014, when they won it.

And at junior level Sligo Grammar have won seven titles - their last was an 8-5 victory over Marist in 2008.

Pedigree

Sligo Grammar have the pedigree, and they will surely return to finals day before long; however, senior coach Jimmy Staunton explains how they are constantly fighting against the odds.

"The big schools are still Garbally and Colaiste Iognaid and Marist in Athlone. They are the traditional schools, and you've seen schools coming and going over the last few years," says Staunton.

"Summerhill probably have a better chance because they have almost 900 boys in their school. We are David and Goliath with them. They have three times as many boys, and that is what we are competing against. But you just get on with it."

Staunton is a native of Claremorris in Mayo, where he was first introduced to rugby by his PE teacher at St Colman's, former Mayo footballer Denis O'Boyle.

This year’s senior team
This year’s senior team

He played briefly in his final year at that school, but Staunton didn't have a true grounding in the sport until he joined Sligo Grammar and discovered the history of the sport within the school.

"You come here you just get engrossed in it. It's tradition. It's been played here for well over 100 years," he explains.

"It's part of the ethos of the school. Particularly with it being a boarding school, rugby would have been a bond between the boarders and the day school students."

Sligo Grammar was founded in 1752. The boarders have always played a major role in the rugby teams, and even as numbers dwindle they continue to have an influence.

"There are 260 or 270 boys, and about 160 or 170 girls in the school. There is an average of about 35-40 boys in each year. It's very hard to put out a team each year," says Staunton.

"We still have boarders, but not as many playing rugby as before. For example there was only one sixth-year boarder on the starting XV this year.

"If you go back five or six years, when we won the cup, eight of the lads were boarders. When we won the cup in 2014, maybe five of them were.

Spirit

"Boarders are be important. They create a really good team spirit because they are living together 24-7.

"We have guys coming from Leitrim, Roscommon and Mayo. Some of them have never played before. They just pick it up in school.

"My own son, Oisin has played two years Senior Cup and he never had played before school."

So even despite their small playing population Sligo Grammar continue to grind out the results in the big games, and they remain one of the elite teams in the province.

The won the Senior League in 2017, and although they were beaten 29-7 by back-to-back champions Colaiste Iognaid in the semi-final of the Senior Cup, Grammar's brilliant structures ensure their junior players will be given the best possible opportunity to become a successful senior side.

"We were runners-up in 2009, we won in '10, we runners-up in 2011, '12, we won the cup in 2014 and that was the last final we were in," says Staunton.

"Rugby has always been strong. We always seem to be able to put a team together no matter what the numbers are like. A lot of that comes from the commitment of the people involved.

"We were lucky in the last few years we have five teachers involved. James Gavin has been the back-bone of it in the school for the last 15 or 16 years.

"When you have that commitment the students benefit. And the parents' support is very important too."

And of course the continued resurgence of Connacht Rugby doesn't hurt, with many former Sligo Grammar pupils contributing.

Out-going Connacht head coach Pat Lam made a point of bringing his team out to visit all corners of the province, and things like that have inspired the next generation of Sligo talent.

Now the only problem is keeping them in the county, with Galway and other bigger urban centres threatening to attract their talent away from Sligo RFC.

"Rugby is very, very big in Sligo. The big problem is that there is a lot of very good underage players coming through. You have Stephen Kerins, Conan O'Donnell, Matthew Cosgrave," says Staunton.

"If they want to go to the next level they need to leave the Sligo team to push on. They go to college in Galway, Limerick and Dublin and they get picked up by other clubs.

"You just move on. The employment is not in this area to bring to them back. It's very difficult to hold on to good players. It's a pity.

"But Sligo has produced a lot of good young players. The Sligo senior team, if they can hold those young players together, could promote the game in the town. If the senior rugby team is strong it's good for everybody."

Irish Independent

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