'We know that we are on the right track'
New Zealander O'Neill eager to help his adopted Ballina RFC become the senior club in Connacht, writes Declan Rooney
Considering no Connacht junior club has won a game in the Round Robin series in the last 17 attempts, the dream of becoming an Ulster Bank League team might seem like a million miles away, but Ballina RFC are determined to do everything in their power to someday reach that milestone.
As the most recent winners of the Connacht J1A and with two bonus-point wins to their name to start this season, Ballina RFC are well positioned to gauge the difference in class between Connacht clubs and their rivals from the other three provinces.
They did lose all three of their Round Robin games in 2016-'17, but, according to their New Zealand-born full-back Chris O'Neill, the feeling is they are a lot closer to the standard required to challenge at that level than results suggest. To be fair, they came up against one of the strongest junior-senior converts in years in Malahide, who have won two from four in Division 2C so far this season. Clonmel have been Munster's representatives for two of the last three years, while Omagh were also promoted after victory in the promotion/relegation play-off.
"That was a great experience for the guys, to play in that Round Robin and to realise the level of rugby that we can play and need to play to move up to the senior ranks, was huge," says O'Neill
"Even though we lost all three games, the results didn't really reflect the games. We were definitely the equal of those teams. We know where we are heading and we know we are on the right track. We have to be positive and know that we can beat those teams."
Target Winning Connacht league J1A qualified Ballina for the competition and is the number one target for this season, but in recent years Westport, Connemara, OLBC and Monivea have all had a crack at reaching the senior ranks without success.
Even though they have gotten off to a great start this year, Ballina are well aware of the level of competition that's there this time round.
"The thing is we cannot get ahead of ourselves. We have to work very hard to win this competition and put ourselves in that position again. That's the big goal, to keep our standards high so that we have that opportunity to push on.
"The likes of Connemara is an interesting test. We played four times last season and we won two of them. They have to be respected.
"Westport, Monivea... there are some very good sides in the league and you have to be on your game every week. You have to be consistent to win the league and you can't be complacent at any stage. We've started well, and it's a start that we mean to carry on."
There are plenty of positives for the junior team, but Ballina RFC are keen to make sure that they are planning for further down the line too. O'Neill works for Connacht Rugby as a club and community rugby officer and divides his time coaching at the club and in the local schools.
He was quick to praise the groundwork that has been put in place by Russell O'Brien, his predecessor, and with wins for the U-13, U-14, U-15 and U-18.5 last weekend, the efforts at ground level are beginning to bear fruit as the club are now standard-setters in the province.
"It is a credit to the work that the club has done. There is a huge focus in youth and mini rugby that feeds into strong teams at underage," O'Neill says.
"The club does a lot of work with the schools, and the volunteers are really helping out to keep rugby going.
"The club has a much wider focus that just the adult game.
"There has been a lot of hard work leading up to this over the last couple of years. Retaining the youth players that have been through the system is a big thing.
"The majority of our junior team is under 24 - there is a couple of the old heads floating round too - but they are the real bulk of the team. That's where our underage success is paying off.
"They have started to mature and we're seeing that influence now when they get the opportunity to play."
O'Neill was born in New Zealand's south island and first moved to Ballina in 2010. A six-month stint back home was followed by four years in London where he and his partner, Adina, ran a bar in Greenwich. While there he lined out for Black Heath RFC, one of the world's oldest rugby clubs, and to coincide with the birth of his second son the family moved back home to Ballina.
"My partner Adina is from Ballina. We had one boy at that stage now we have two little boys, Beau and Brody. We moved back to settle down and live our life over here. It's nice to have a bit of family around when you are raising kids."
He quickly slotted back into the rugby club and has played a massive part in the development of the game in the club from the ground up.
O'Neill has been involved heavily in developing the game for the boys and girls of Ballina, but is also keen to keep on helping the side to drive for their main aim of promotion. So much so he ran in two tries last weekend as the juniors recorded a very impressive 53-5 win over Galwegians at Crowley Park.
"I knew most of the guys involved in the club from before, so I went straight back in to training. Adina and her family are great supporters on a Sunday afternoon when we play, but she takes care of the kids to free me up for playing rugby."
Like all New Zealand natives, rugby is the natural sport that they gravitate to as youngsters, and that is gradually becoming the case in Ballina too. From a young age Chris played rugby at St John's primary school in the small village of Ranfurly in Otago, and when he became a boarder at St Kevin's College in Oamaru, he began to take the game more seriously.
During his time as a club player with Green Island in Dunedin, O'Neill was a team-mate of All Black Ben Smith, and he is hoping to see similar talent hitting the Connacht squad from north Mayo in the years to come.
"My job involves me going around all the schools in the area, to help coach the teams. I have to help get rugby into the schools. It's about getting as many kids as we can out and active and enjoying a bit of sport. That's what it's all about."