'We were borrowing fields to get it going'
Introducing rugby to local national and secondary schools has seen the game thrive in Leitrim, writes Daragh Small
In sporting terms Leitrim is most commonly known as a GAA heartland, while there are significant pockets of soccer activity around the Carrick-on-Shannon area. But in recent years rugby is gathering support and the local club is benefiting massively.
Colm McWeeney is the current player-coach with the Carrick-on-Shannon RFC senior team, and he is also the brains behind the operation looking to influence the next generation to try their hand at rugby.
With ten secondary schools and 20 primary schools in the North Roscommon and Leitrim catchment area, their Connacht Club & Community Rugby Officer (CCRO) McWeeney has a vision that sees Carrick-on-Shannon competing with the very best in the province.
"I have to cover the county of Leitrim and north Roscommon. In that north Roscommon region you have the likes of Boyle and Elphin and a couple of other outlying places too that would be geographically closer to me than our man down in Creggs.
"We work hand in hand to try to hit as many of those schools as possible," says McWeeney. "Like all the other CCROs we go into primary and secondary schools and try to get as much involvement in rugby as possible with the kids, as much participation as possible.
"It's coming from a place that hasn't got a lot of rugby historically. We spend a certain number of weeks in primary schools and we try to get them out to blitzes every now and again - the same for secondary schools."
Blitzes McWeeney has currently set up shop in five primary schools and ten secondary schools, but he knows there is a potential there to double his efforts in the area.
The Carrick-on-Shannon native played minis rugby with the club before it disbanded, and he was one of the major contributors that helped reestablish rugby in the community, in the early 2000s, after years of turmoil.
"The club disbanded for different reasons. And then a few years ago some of us decided to set it back up again. By hook or by crook, we were homeless and landless at the time. We were trying to do everything in our power to get things back up and running," adds McWeeney.
"We had the minis off in a community field out in Leitrim Gaels. The men's team were borrowing fields and pitches to get it going.
"And thankfully in the last few years we eventually got it going again and this year I have taken over as coach of the senior and that's a big moment for me. We are in a transitionary phase for the next year or two now with guys having moved on.
"But with an influx of people coming into the area, we have seen growth in numbers but a lot of these people who have an interest in rugby.
"They might not have played it at a senior level over the years so we are trying to get the fundamentals right first. But numbers are good and the positivity around the club is exceptional."
Carrick-on-Shannon set up their base on the Castlecara Road at Keenaghan and they soon began to put in the facilities that would aid their chances of attracting more and more players to their various teams.
"It's a superb pitch that we have. It's one of the better ones in Connacht and when every ground in the country is washed out, I don't think we have ever had a waterlogged pitch in the past," says McWeeney.
"It's just been built well. We put a lot of funds into it. That's phase one, phase two will be our dressing rooms and everything else. At the moment we are dealing out of a few cabins and things like that but we are getting there."
With Ireland hosting the Women's Rugby World Cup over the summer there was a stark rise in the numbers heading for Keenaghan, while Connacht's Guinness PRO12 title in 2015-'16 had already added nicely to the group.
Aldi's Play Rugby sponsorship has been a huge step forward for the growth of the game in the country and McWeeney explains why it makes his job as CCRO that bit easier.
"With Aldi on board too we can give the schools the equipment there too and that's very beneficial. They can sign up for the Aldi system and they can see the things online, and if I'm not there, some of the teachers can learn it and put it into action themselves," says McWeeney.
"Aldi are sponsoring play rugby. They are giving out packs to all of the primary schools in the country. When we have a presence in there for a few weeks the teachers can sign up online.
"Every few weeks Aldi keep updating little fun games they have for the kids. It's a community thing that they can all buy into. There is a message board if they want to bounce things off each other too.
"It depends too on the interest of the teachers on the groups. In some cases, you might get the odd teacher dragging their heels. But it is a great facility to have. They can use it in the future.
"They get a bag, a number of balls, bibs and tags. It gives them a base point to start off with. It's a ready-made pack we can give out and they can go from there. If I'm not there, at least they have the equipment and some of the know how to take care of it by themselves to keep the participation going."
But as the rugby continues to grow in the area, McWeeney knows that the only way for it to be sustainable is if they continue to foster their brilliant relationship with other sports in the area. It all runs hand in hand with the GAA. I have been involved with the club for the past ten years if not more. Guys come in on the off-season and when the rugby season is over they go back to the football," adds McWeeney.
"But the fundamental skills we have with the football, the catch and pass, they transfer over. The players can go from one into the other. We seem to have good respect from all of the codes. We are not stepping on anyone's toes.
"And with Carrick-on-Shannon we are on the border between Roscommon and Leitrim. We are dealing with several different clubs and set-ups and thankfully it all runs smoothly."