Scrum-half Blade cuts pathway for small clubs in province
Club focus: Monivea RFC
Andy Friend's decision to ask Caolin Blade to captain Connacht in their European Challenge Cup campaign away to Sale Sharks at the weekend made it probably the proudest day in the history of Monivea RFC.
When Blade ran out at AJ Bell Stadium in Salford to make his 72nd appearance for Connacht, it represented a special day in the annals of the Monivea club.
Blade came through the ranks in the mid Co Galway club before he finally made the grade with Connacht and after six seasons with his local province he got the wear the captain's armband for the first time last weekend.
And all of that may not have been possible without people like Pádraic McGann, one of the main founding members of Monivea RFC way back in 1971.
Now the club president, he has remained involved all the way through, and he is looking at new ways to keep a great story alive in a difficult time for club rugby.
Coming from an area where there are plenty of other sports on offer, rugby was always facing an uphill battle. But McGann endeavoured to keep his dream alive and Blade is the perfect example of why those hours of hard work have paid off.
The Blade family have been synonymous with Monivea RFC and indeed with the GAA successes enjoyed by Abbeyknockmoy in hurling and Monivea-Abbey in football down through the years.
"It's absolute magic to see Caolin go so far. It's great for Monivea Rugby Club," says McGann. "In four years time we will be 50 years of age. Monivea is a very small village. There were very little resources available to us in the past and there still aren't.
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"It wasn't an easy thing to keep it going over the years. You have senior hurling and football teams and soccer all around you here. People think it's a miracle that the rugby is still going.
"Since the last recession rugby is like business. It has changed dramatically. Young guys are not staying in sport after 17 years of age. The culture of it is gone. Lots of sports are packing it in. There are other alternatives out there in the world rather than sport. Clubs are going by the wayside in rugby as well.
"The professional game has taken over. But only for the professional game we wouldn't be there at all because 90 per cent of the money comes from the Irish national team."
The Monivea Castle Grounds have witnessed some fantastic days and the club has grown to become a junior rugby kingpin in Connacht.
Indeed, in 2008 Monivea were on the verge of All-Ireland League status after a massive 33-5 win over Waterpark in a play-off.
But despite qualifying for the round robin series in 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2005, and then finally getting the win over their Waterford opponents, player eligibility problems meant Monivea couldn't get promoted.
It was a big blow to a club who had come so far in such a short space of time, since McGann and his Ireland international cousin Barry McGann played rugby on the local GAA pitch.
"I had a first cousin who was just coming into rugby in 1971. We started with a ball just throwing it around and kicking it down on the GAA pitch. That's how the rugby started, out of nothing," says McGann.
"In 1972, we had our official opening October 8. There was never a rugby ball in Monivea. There was a lot people who were anti because I was promoting an English sport.
"It wasn't an easy sell let me tell you that much. But I was only 19 or 20 and when you are young you don't take any notice of these things."
It was Barry McGann that originally spiked Pádraic's interest in rugby. And he was also playing out-half for Ireland against Scotland when Pádraic went to his first international.
It led to a great club being formed and the McGanns have retained their involvement in the club. But Pádraic knows it's crucial that the club continues to reinvent.
"Athenry and Mountbellew would be our two catchment schools. Rugby is only there to play a league or a cup. But it's not continuous every year," adds McGann. "That's the same all over the country except where there are rugby schools and tradition. I thought rugby would really have a go on a yearly basis in the secondary schools but it is not."
McGann has set out a vision he wants to achieve in the coming year, which includes improved floodlights for the pitch. But a better youth system is the major project facing him.
"The only alternative and I am at it now, I started it five years ago, was to introduce the rugby ball into the national schools," McGann says.
"This is our third year and I am in doing 22 national schools. Then they feed into three secondary schools. If we can do that then rugby will be sustainable in Monivea.
"The blitzes we have are held in the evenings. The parents bring them. We were going around and we would be coaching the schools and then we would have a blitz with the schools. But they weren't staying in the club. I was saying that's a waste of money.
"For the first blitz I had the president of the IRFU down and 20 schools out of the 22 showed up. I know I am on a winner. But it's going to take a long time.
"Our average last year was 160 boys and girls registered at mini rugby. The trouble are the resources.
"We have a coach and we pay so much towards the coach and the Connacht Branch and IRFU pay the rest. The resources are the hardest thing."
But days like last Saturday make it all worthwhile when a lad from Monivea RFC leads his province into action on the European stage.