Sligo RFC: In shadow of a mountain, a rugby light continues to burn bright
It's never going to be an easy task promoting rugby football in a soccer-mad town in the north-west of Ireland, but Sligo Rugby Club is an example of how hard work and determination can reap great rewards both on and off the field of play.
With up on 400 active members, Sligo are more than holding their own in the battle and continue to grow. Located in Strandhill, in the shadow of Knocknarea mountain, looking out over Coney Island (the original, not the New York version) and Sligo bay, lies the home of Sligo RFC, Hamilton Park.
The ground, named after the father-in-law of the current club president George Draper, is one of the most scenic rugby grounds in the land and plays host to a club that continues to strive to grow its position as the rugby beacon in the north-west.
The club's first team are currently playing in Division 2B of the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League, having being promoted from the Connacht Junior League following a memorable all-conquering campaign in the 2010/11 season when the club completed the Connacht Junior League and Cup double.
Behind every good first team is a strong second team and the Sligo development team are certainly playing their part in maintaining the high standard.
Having secured pole position at the end of the Connacht JIC league, Sligo unfortunately lost out to NUIG for automatic promotion in the final round robin match last Sunday.
The jewel in the Sligo RFC crown is the Youth Academy. Sligo field youth teams at all ages from U-13s to U-18.5. Thanks to the trojan work over the years by the likes of Michael O'Hehir, John Davey, Brendan Leahy, Joe Walsh, Barry McConkey, Kieran Foley and, more recently, Tom Nielson, Des Cosgrove, Niall Gray, Justin Harte and Hugh O'Hehir to name a few, the name of Sligo RFC consistently appears at the top of youth league tables and Sligo teams regularly take to the field in cup finals.
In fact, the Sligo U18.5s have already secured the Connacht league for this season and are now preparing for an assault on the Connacht Cup.
With such continued success at underage level, it is no surprise that Connacht representative underage teams are regularly backboned by a strong core of Sligo players.
Last season Sligo's Conan O'Donnell became the first player from Summerhill College in Sligo to win an Irish schoolboy cap. Conan played in all of Ireland's games (including the final) in the Schools European Championship in Poland and this year has represented Connacht at U-20 and Eagles levels and is a hugely important member of the Irish U-20 squad, a squad that he will be eligible for again next season.
Having represented Ireland at U-18 Youth level last season and scoring a memorable try against France, Matthew Cosgrove proudly captained the Connacht U-19s earlier this season. Both Conan O'Donnell and Matthew have now played at every age group for Sligo RFC from U-7s to Senior!
Matthew was joined in this year's Connacht U-19 squad by Joe Bennett, Jack Keegan, Andrew Lynch, Thomas Moran, and Ronan O'Brien. At U-18 level this season, Cillian Gallager, Liam McElhinney, Darragh Cummins, Shane O'Hehir, Hadi Mousa, Ryan Feehily, Paul Kilcoyne, TJ Ford and Enda Farrell made up the backbone of the Connacht squad.
Daragh Cummins has made the next step and played for the Irish U-18s club squad in their match against the Italian U-18s at Ashbourne RFC last Saturday
Feeding into the successful youth section at Sligo RFC is the all-important Juvenile section. Catering for boys and girls from U-7 to U-12, the Juvenile section train every Saturday morning at Sligo IT.
Under the watchful eyes of Ken Draper, Gabriel Gormley, Ken O'Neill and a host of other dedicated volunteers, these budding young players are educated in the skills of the game in a fun environment ensuring the all-important conveyor belt of talent continues apace.
Women's rugby has been on the rise in the last few years and Sligo have keenly embraced this welcome development with the re-emergence of a women's team after a break of over 10 years. This season the Sligo women's team competed in Division 2 of the All-Ireland League following two very successful Connacht Development League campaigns. Jacqui Mulligan, Ruth Goodwin and Nicole Fowley have all taken the step into representative rugby.
Club stalwart Lisa Moore is successfully progressing a girls youth team to back up the development women's rugby in the club.
The success of Sligo Rugby Club does not happen by accident. A strong leadership ensures that resources are sourced, provided and allocated where needed. Fundraising is always an issue and new ways of raising funds are constantly being challenged. Teenage discos, auctions, a Boston Tea party and a hugely successful summer Tag rugby tournament (11 weeks, 36 teams) are just some of the initiatives run in a professional manner to ensure the continued success of the club.
The executive committee of Michael Storey, Rory Raftery,Trevor Sweeney, Niall Draper, Mickey O'Hehir and Tom Nielsen are ably supported by people like the tireless Justin Harte, Emer Draper, James Coulter, Avril McManus and many others. All people who put many hours of their own time , energy and money into the labour of love that is Sligo RFC.
What's next for Sligo RFC?
As with anything in life, the people in Sligo RFC know that to stand still is to go backwards and with this in mind an extensive development plan is in place.
The goal of a fully-functional astroturf pitch at Strandhill is firmly in the sights and a sports capital grant from the National Lottery fund is a good start but the balance must raised to ensure the project is completed.
A promotion drive for the 400 club draw is under way with Ken O'Neill actively recruiting new members to ensure the next step in the development of Sligo RFC runs smoothly.
Sligo RFC is a living, breathing, entity with many working parts coming together in the goal of promoting Rugby Football in Sligo.
Rest assured rugby in the north-west is in safe hands!