Wednesday 19 December 2018

Days of clearing sheep off pitch are long gone

But Daragh Small finds hunt is on for new members to make use of excellent facilities

The Connacht team and coaches with the cup following the U-18 Girls Interprovincial Championship triumph. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
The Connacht team and coaches with the cup following the U-18 Girls Interprovincial Championship triumph. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
Ballyhaunis on the attack against Ballina
The Ballyhaunis team senior and management

Ballyhaunis RFC have come a long way since the days when sheep would have to be rushed off the field in order for a match, or even just a training session, to get under way.

The most diverse town in Ireland now boasts some of the best facilities in Connacht, and new president Martin Walsh is determined to bring the team's competitiveness up to standard too.

The 2016 census showed that more people were employed in Ballyhaunis than ten years previously, and with 64pc of the population not yet 40, it suggests the perfect age profile for a rugby team to thrive. But the club has struggled in recent years despite their wonderful grounds on Doctor's Road.

"We could certainly do with more volunteers. Even last winter, our numbers fell away. It's very hard on minis keeping momentum going at times," says Walsh.

"It's obviously a minority sport in Mayo. Even hurling in these parts is huge. Football is obviously huge too. We would be struggling with volunteers. The same few people do everything, the same in every club.

"We do get a few of the foreign guys playing. We had Nigerian and South African young lads playing with us last year. We have Russians and Polish playing but we would like to get more of them.

"We have encouraged more to come to training, but a lot of the guys are quite young. They come in and they are often gone when they are young. A couple of the lads that have stayed around have been involved.

"A lot of the eastern Europeans like the big sport but team sports isn't a huge thing with them. They would rather lift weights in a gym than play a team sport.

"The best thing you can do to get the guys to play is to make them enjoy it and feel a part of it. We can't create jobs, it's not that simple. It's difficult enough to retain them. You just have to try and get them to get the bus and train so they come back at the weekends. You want them to enjoy it. And they do when they come down."

Walsh is a stalwart in the club, having spent his whole rugby career playing for Ballyhaunis, apart from a brief stint when he ended up in GMIT colours, coming out on the wrong side of the result in an All-Ireland semi-final.

As a youngster, the Ballyhaunis native didn't excel on the GAA fields and preferred the extra physicality that rugby offered. He joined up with his local club and became a hooker.

That was the start of a playing career that eventually ran to 20 years and which included a Connacht U-20 title. But injury caught up with him eventually.

Barn

In time he would come full circle and end up coaching when his sons Luke and Cian began to join ranks about a decade ago.

"When I started playing the dressing rooms were a barn behind Mick Morris' Horse Shoe Inn pub," says Walsh. But it got worse.

"The pitch was a field with a bad hill on it and we used to have to chase the sheep off the field before we could actually play the match. We were young lads, and there would be a few sheep out on the pitch and you would chase them off it, it sounds crazy now.

"But the one thing I can say, is we have absolute start-of-the-art facilities now. We are struggling with numbers and when we had no pitch we had loads of numbers. But it's common enough around the country in rural clubs. We bought some land on the edge of Ballyhaunis town and developed that in the early '90s. We have two excellent pitches and a fantastic clubhouse now."

Despite the lack of numbers Ballyhaunis has a massive catchment area, and situated 30 miles to the east of Castlebar, and just 15 miles from the Sligo border, there is so much potential there.

"We have players coming from 15 or 20 miles to play for us, and it's great just to be involved," Walsh adds.

"I remember Rob Duffy rang me and asked me would I be president. I said I felt honoured to be asked but I didn't want encroach on anyone else if they wanted it. I just felt there would have been a few people ahead of me.

"It's a huge privilege. First thing you think you are young fella until you are asked to do that job. I was shocked that I fell into the category. But it's a huge honour.

"There is a responsibility. There is a very good committee with Rob Duffy and Mark Curley and people like Peter Gallagher, who has kept the club going through tougher times.

"There is a huge responsibility that the club doesn't go backwards on your watch."

And Walsh hopes that he can keep the club pointed in the right direction on the field, while the minis picks up and the more senior ranks begin to get competitive on the big stage.

They have seen what the likes of Ballina have done in getting to the All-Ireland League, and they could replicate that with the right structures in place.

Facilities-wise, Ballyhaunis have almost perfected the art and once it comes together on the field they will be a force to be reckoned with at the top table in Connacht club rugby.

"We have a big project on where we have built on to the clubhouse and we want to finish development of it," says Walsh. "I will be delighted when that is done and we can get back to concentrating on players and what they need, developing players and getting the underage thing back on track, and stop investing in infrastructure and focusing more on the players.

"Our underage set-up has gone badly in the last year or two. And one of the reasons I have got drafted in is to try and fix that.

"I didn't expect to get called in but I hope to help put things right."

And no doubt, like all those who served before him, that's exactly what Walsh will do.

Irish Independent

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