Sunday 22 September 2019

Embracing community ethos lifts rugby in south Mayo

Club focus: Claremorris Colts

The Claremorris U17s in action against Sligo
The Claremorris U17s in action against Sligo

Daragh Small

Formed on the back of a friendly summer tag rugby league, Claremorris were always likely to succeed when they dipped their toes in the 15-a-side pond.

It's a part of the world where sport is one of the most important aspects of the day-to-day life, and the only thing that trumps that is the vibrant community spirit that exists there.

The Claremorris Colts U12s under the floodlights at a blitz in Tuam
The Claremorris Colts U12s under the floodlights at a blitz in Tuam

Those two things go in hand in hand when it comes to growing a new club and after Claremorris Colts were formed as recently as 2009 they quickly blossomed into a popular addition to the vast array of activities already on offer.

The locals took to it and current president Michael McLoughlin believes the club is destined to grow and refuse to buckle in the face of the obstacles many junior clubs around Ireland tend to face.

"The place is famous for community spirit and we are probably genuinely one of the sports capitals of the country here in Claremorris," says McLoughlin.

"The rugby club has really thrived in only ten years. But we cater for every kind of sport. We have indoor and outdoor athletics tracks. We have two indoor equestrian centres, and 18-hole golf, everything across the spectrum.

The Claremorris U16 girls team in Tuam
The Claremorris U16 girls team in Tuam

"All of the clubs cooperate. Sometimes there will be a fixtures pile-up but in general you will find the same personnel work together in all of the clubs.

"Politically it might go back to the Land League or something, but any time any club is in a bit of bother people will usually rally around and support them.

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"The whole of south Mayo is a GAA centre. Claremorris would represent six or seven GAA clubs but they all provide players to the rugby club.

"Sometimes on a fixture thing there might be a bit of a problem but that is normal. The same thing happens with the soccer club."

Claremorris Club President Michael McLoughlin with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Claremorris Club President Michael McLoughlin with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

McLoughlin is Claremorris born and bred, and he played the game when he attended the rugby nursery that is Blackrock College in Dublin.

Former British & Irish Lion Fergus Slattery and Connacht's John Gilmore both attended the school just before him.

"I played rugby a long time ago but I wasn't the greatest rugby player in fairness. But I tried and I togged out in a number positions for a few years," says McLoughlin.

And he gave up the game when he was 16, he played GAA too, but ultimately he was led back to Mayo where rugby would become a massive part of his life again.

McLoughlin taught accountancy in Castlebar and Claremorris but last year he took over as president at the Colts. His daughter, Rowena, played for Castlebar because there was no girls team when she wanted to take it up.

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"I go to a number of the matches. My daughter plays rugby and my son-in-law is involved with them," says McLoughlin.

"I was going to the matches and they wanted someone just to turn up as president so I did it."

And despite being one of the newest clubs in the province, Claremorris Colts are thriving equally in the men's and women's codes. They were one of the first clubs in Ireland to have a separate minis section for girls, which has proven to be a big hit.

"The club is marvellous, marvellous underage for both boys and girls. They have got great coaches and they are all hugely dedicated," says McLoughlin.

"It's growing much faster and bigger than I would have anticipated. It's certainly not the resources the club have, it has to be the personnel.

"We have opened a new pitch now. We got cooperation from the local convent. They give the convent pitch to us. The club gets GAA pitches that wouldn't be in use.

"But it's very difficult all of the junior matches had to be played away in Dunmore, Tuam or Ballyhaunis."

The club were given 5.6 acres from the Claremorris Racecourse Committee in 2012. The facilities have improved majorly since that ground-breaking investment and they are set to open officially after Christmas.

"Our grounds are currently in the Showgrounds which is community-owned. There are so many acres there," says McLoughlin.

"The athletic club, the agricultural show, the rugby, soccer and GAA clubs all have space there in a community trustee-owned place. That is where the industrial estate is as well."

But it's vital for the most senior team in every club to finally have some success in order for the youngsters below to believe that they can also achieve some day.

Claremorris were formed at a time when Irish rugby was beginning to finally fulfil its potential, when Brian O'Driscoll lifted the Six Nations trophy in Cardiff after a first Grand Slam in 61 years.

The south Mayo club haven't acquired much silverware at senior level just yet but they aren't far away from some landmark victories either.

"The junior team are good and they are improving all of the time. They are enthusiastic and we do all right at that level," says McLoughlin.

"We are playing against teams from clubs that are 70, 80 years in existence and there is a history of rugby played there. Our players are mostly converted GAA or soccer players.

"A lot of them didn't play rugby until they were 18, 19 or 20."

Claremorris have won Connacht leagues, cups and plates as well as Welsh Rugby Festival titles.

And just this month they were awarded the Sports Club of the Year Award as part of the Rehab Mayo People of the Year 2018 awards.

"We are nearly ten years in existence and we got Connacht club of the year a few years ago," says McLoughlin.

"The guys here are definitely doing something right and I am just in an honorary sort of position as president.

"But they are doing a great job here. It is just a matter of full steam ahead. They are doing really well as they are, they just need to keep things going.

"There is general agreement at all of the meetings I have attended, it's all very positive stuff. Everyone's happy."

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