Grassroots work paying off in Mayo schools
The second year of rugby in Foxford sees improvement in skills and facilities as future looks promising, writes Daragh Small
With Ballina RFC performing heroics in the Ulster Bank League Round Robin, they have become the latest batch of heroes for the students of St Joseph's Secondary School in Foxford to latch onto.
Located on the banks of River Moy, Foxford and its school are less than 20 minutes away from Ballina town. Previously Connacht's PRO12 win in 2015-16 acted as the buffer, before Ireland's Grand Slam victory inspired the next generation.
But now they have their very own local heroes, and caretaker Sean McLoughlin says the club have played pivotal role in the growth of rugby in the school.
"Rugby was introduced to this school last year for the first time. We would have the usual sports: Gaelic football, soccer, athletics, basketball. There is an opportunity to sample every sport and rugby came on board last year," said McLoughlin.
"The Ballina rugby club came in here and spoke to the principal. I wouldn't have had a background in rugby myself. I was a spectator more than anything over the years. But they came in last year and this year I was asked by the principal to help.
"I went in there from the school perspective as a liaison with the coaches coming in. That's how I got involved in it this year. Now we have two teams, a junior and senior rugby team, and they are in the emerging and development cups."
In a co-ed school of around 480 students which was set up in 1951, sport plays a crucial role in its day-to-day running. Principal Eileen O'Brien saw the potential that rugby had, for team building and to help students foster a different type of work ethic on the field.
McLoughlin was the obvious candidate to help ease the sport in. He is a past pupil and attended St Joseph's from the late 1970s. After that he returned to become a caretaker in 1998.
"Foxford is situated in the middle of Castlebar, Ballina and Swinford. The River Moy divides the east and the north of the county. And we're pretty central here," said McLoughlin.
"It's a nice place renowned for its fishing and also for the woollen mills which was an integral part of the town and still is. They still produce lovely stuff there. That's what it would be famous for. Its two big claims to fame would be fishing and woollen mills.
"The school was set up by the sisters of charity who also set up the woollen mills. It's just over 57 years in existence and it has grown steadily."
Rugby has grown rapidly within the school, and it shows no signs of stopping with girls also being catered for in various blitzes, as facilitator McLoughlin looks to help it thrive on all fronts.
But the next step is an improvement in the facilities available to the young players. Plans are in the pipeline and McLoughlin is excited about it.
"In terms of facilities in the school at the moment, we are hoping to develop a playing area at the back of the school, but that comes with its own hazards in terms of trying to finance that," said McLoughlin.
"But every sport will enjoy the same facility. It's not just for rugby or soccer or Gaelic football. If the school has good facilities every sport will benefit. But that is what the school is trying to put in place at the moment.
"We have a small-sized AstroTurf area here at the back of the school. You are restricted with the numbers to do any meaningful work on it. But nonetheless that's what we have used throughout the winter.
"The coaches have put emphasis on the skills and rules of the game. As we progressed then we got to the final of the junior emerging cup where we were beaten by Boyle.
"We availed of the facilities of Ballina to take our lads in there. They had a lot of facilities that we could access. It was great to get them in there.
"But there is the cost of bussing them into Ballina, and we would be delighted if we had the facilities here."
For now St Joseph's will make do, however, and McLoughlin is thrilled with how far the sport has come in such a short space of time, in an area traditionally dominated by GAA.
"It was just Gaelic football in my time and that's what I had an interest in myself," said McLoughlin.
"Rugby certainly wasn't as organised in those times, certainly not to the extent it is now. The Ballina club is doing a lot of work in trying to attract players to the game.
"By going into all of the schools and sending coaches in there and having schools participate at the different levels in Connacht can only be good for the club because it is in north Mayo and it would attract players from Crossmolina, Enniscrone, Foxford, Swinford.
"That's a huge big area. To get players the way to go is through the schools, and that is what they are doing."
And McLoughlin knows that Ireland's promising future in the game, not least a hotly-anticipated World Cup in Japan next year, could be pivotal for the growth of the game in Connacht.
"If you look at all of these things. When soccer had the glory days of Italia '90 and USA '94 everyone was playing soccer and it was very fashionable," said McLoughlin.
"Now with the success the Irish team is having there is a knock on from that. That is feeding down to young lads who like to try out the game.
"In our school we are fortunate that we are in a position to offer them that opportunity. We are fortunate that we are able to offer students that come in here the opportunity to play rugby.
"After that if they want to take it a step further to play with a rugby club, a soccer club or basketball club, they have a taste for it here in the school first."