Hard work being put in to repeat glory days
A proud history means Stephen Rochford's old club have the talent and know-how to get back to the top, writes Daragh Small
Mayo football manager Stephen Rochford is one of the more notable former members of the Ballinrobe RFC dynasty, who dominated Connacht club rugby in the early 1990s.
The club, which plays at the Green in the middle of the town, was formed originally in 1940 but disbanded shortly after a league title success in 1944.
Ballinrobe wasn't reformed again until 1972, and drawing from Ballintubber, Cross, Cong, the Neale, Tourmakeady, Garrymore, Hollymount, Partry and Clonbur they have slowly returned to prominence in the Connacht club rugby scene.
As with many residents of the multi-sport town in Mayo, Rochford has experienced a taste of rugby, and despite being so heavily involved in the world of GAA, the Mayo boss still makes time for the rugby club, according to club president Martin Gannon.
"Stephen was very involved with the rugby club for years," says Gannon. "He was treasurer and played with the club for a long time. He lives in the town and comes to the matches.
"His hands are full with Mayo right now but he was treasurer and he played out-half, back in the day."
Gannon got into rugby through a neighbour, Martin Jennings, who brought him to games from an early age.
There was no local rugby club available at the time, but his friend was one of the founding members of the team as it returned to prominence in the early '70s.
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"I started playing when I was about 18. There was no underage rugby at the time before U-18s. I had always had an interest in rugby through Martin - he was one of the founding members there," says Gannon.
"The club was founded back in the '40s and was revived in '72. He was one of the founders of the revival of the club and I got involved then after that.
"Martin Jennings was a keen rugby player himself, and he brought me along any time he could, which was great."
Gannon played all across the backline for Ballinrobe and when he ended up working for Bank of Ireland, he travelled the world playing for them and watching the Connacht provincial side play away from home too.
He was a member of the historic team and played at full-back for Ballinrobe in 1990 and '91 when they defeated Loughrea and Athlone to win the Connacht Junior Cup.
It was watershed moment for the club and they had become a major force in rugby in the province.
"It was huge at the time. It was a huge achievement to win two in a row and nearly won three in a row, only got beat in the semi-final," says Gannon.
"We have been in two cup finals since then but lost them. We went through a bad time a few years ago when we went down to Division 3.
"A few years ago we won Division 3 and the plate as well, in 2015. We are up in Division 2 and holding our own there, trying to get up to Division 1."
Ballinrobe are slowly becoming the force they once were in Connacht, and with players coming through from underage and progressing to the provincial ranks, it helps foster the mantra that anyone can compete at the highest level if they put the work in at the grassroots level.
"We have Matthew Burke who was on the Irish U-20 team," says Gannon. "He is a local here and is in the Connacht academy.
"He is in his early 20s, he was brought up through the club, he is playing with Corinthians in Galway now. It's great to have someone like that for the kids to have to look up to.
"We used to have Joe Daly who played a lot of times with Connacht back in the '80s. He is from the town as well."
But no matter how talented a young aspiring rugby player is, the coaching hours must be put in too, and at Ballinrobe the volunteers work tirelessly to try to unearth more and more future stars.
Ballinrobe now have a minis section, and teams at U-10, U-12, U-14, U-16 and U-18.5, who all compete in the in the Connacht leagues.
"Our underage are going very well. We have an U-20 team who are going very well in tan underage league in Cong," says Gannon.
"The final is going to be on over Christmas in Westport and the winner gets €5,000. We are in the shake-up.
"We did a lot of work at underage over the last ten years and that's beginning to bear fruit with our senior team at the moment, where the average age of the backline is around 20."
In 2011 and 2013 the Ballinrobe U-17s travelled to Vienne in France, while the U-18s went to London this year and the U-18.5 head to Portugal later this season.
The club is making massive strides on and off the pitch and the success that Connacht Rugby continue to have all adds to appeal.
Ballinrobe have recently got involved with the Cong Hands of Fame Award committee, who honoured Pat Lam and John Muldoon with the Hands of Cong Award this year, for their contribution to Irish life.
And as the link continues to grow with the Connacht set-up, and Matthew Burke comes through the ranks there, Ballinrobe are set to host a Connacht inter-provincial derby next year.
"Our club's pitch is in the middle of the town and we have spent €200,000 on it in the last four or five years and we are playing there for the last three years," says Gannon.
"We are hosting the Connacht interpro with Leinster there next April.
"It's a nice homely club and I would urge anyone who likes rugby and just wants to try their hand at it to get down and give it a go at Ballinrobe RFC.
"The pitch is in the middle of the town, it's lovely and new - we only developed it in the last couple of years and it's the best place to play your rugby around.
"We always want new members, and volunteers, and we would welcome anyone who wants to try rugby for the first time or get back into the game."