Club Focus: Mayo leads the way in schooling new players
Ballina school St Muredach's College showing the way forward as years of developing the game begin to pay off in big way, writes Daragh Small
With the local primary school students now trained up on the basic skills of the game, the future looks very bright for rugby at St Muredach's in Ballina.
There is a rich sporting heritage in the school, which includes a decorated rugby past, but the latest resurgence is down to the hard work of the Connacht Rugby club and community section.
Ballina RFC works hand in hand with St Muredach's from year to year, but since they established a rugby base in the 24 primary schools, Connacht Rugby have created a profound impact.
"It's because of Connacht doing so well, and also the structures that Connacht have put in place," says vice-principal Matthew Coldrick.
"Recently I was out doing primary school visits and the principals said that the coaches are starting to come out to the local primary schools.
"That's great for the grassroots. The young people know the sport before they go playing it in secondary school as well.
"We would have two coaches coming in from our local club, that would be involved in Connacht Rugby. They came in and have done six-week blocks with our first year during their double classes to upskill them in the game. Some of them haven't played rugby before but a lot of them following that have taken up rugby with Ballina RFC too."
Meath native Coldrick has worked at St Muredach's for 13 years now, and he has never witnessed such a strong rugby culture in the confines of the school on the banks of the River Moy.
St Muredach's was founded in 1906 and just last year the school won the Connacht Schools Senior Development League and Cup.
"For the length of time I have been here this is the strongest rugby has been. It was strong before but went by the wayside and in the last five years it has started to grow again," says Coldrick.
"The number one sport in any club or parish in Mayo would be Gaelic football number one, soccer would be number two and then the rugby.
"But I have two young lads, one of them is nine and the other is going on eight. They play their Gaelic during the summer months, their soccer and then during the winter months they start up with the rugby. It's good to have the different sports. They are mad to play and they have all those opportunities now."
The local Ballina Stephenites club provide plenty of local county footballers to inspire the students at St Muredach's, while the Premier League will always have its fair share of superstars cross-channel.
Connacht Rugby is the new star attraction for the future sportsmen of St Muredach's though. And Coldrick says a recent trip to see one of Ireland's successful autumn internationals also whetted the appetite.
"We brought a group, of about 40 students from first year up to Leaving Cert, up to Aviva Stadium for the Ireland and Fiji match. They were most of the rugby players, some of them didn't play but they were first years who wanted to experience that atmosphere and see what it was all about," adds Coldrick.
"That same week I was up at the Ireland and Denmark game and it was a totally different atmosphere. A few of them went to both games too, and they said the rugby atmosphere is great compared to the soccer.
"It's great to have Connacht nearby as well. It's not too far of a bus journey to Galway to see the team. We normally try and organise something with the Ballina club.
"On a Saturday morning they might make the trip up to watch the games. That works well; by and large you would have a few bus loads going down to take it all in. They get to meet the players then after sometimes too.
"Last year for our open night we had the PRO12 trophy down. Willie Ruane, who is from the area, was good enough to bring it down and that was great to have here."
It all acts as a constant reminder to the students that rugby is viable route in life, if they have the dedication to succeed in the game.
And there is much more to it than the competitive element. St Muredach's share their facilities with the local club and some of the nearby schools too.
They retain a massive rivalry with those neighbouring schools, but that is another area where rugby is thriving for all the right reasons in the different pockets of the province.
"We have a rugby pitch here and the clubs would use our facilities as well at weekends at underage. The local secondary schools would actually come and use our facilities for competitions they would be involved in as well," says Coldrick.
"Between ourselves, Crossmolina, Foxford, Lacken Cross, Enniscrone and Easkey, they would come and play their games on our pitch as well because of the facilities we have.
"Rugby is a crucial part of what the guys do outside of class. The main things they take from it are friendship, team building, integrating with each other, fitness and well-being as well."
And it's not only on the playing side of things where St Muredach's, Ballina RFC and Connacht Rugby have come together to keep young people in the game.
"We currently do GAA coaching courses with our transition years. In the future Connacht Rugby will come in and do a similar thing with the TYs so they can do foundation coaching so they can go out to the schools," says Coldrick.
"With them now being involved with the local primary schools the club here has been great because it's promoting us as well. It's planned down the line that we would set up a spring time blitz for the fifth and sixth classes from the primary school.
"They would come in and play against the other primary schools. Normally there wouldn't be too many of them that would know each other in the rugby capacity, this way they will.
"They will get to know each other rather than just in the football circles and make more friends before they come here."