Fun is name of the game as Meath club looks to the future
Ashbourne’s CCRO at the centre of putting an exciting vision in place, writes Brian Lowry
Having fun while learning at the same time. It sounds obvious but it can be hard to get the right mix at times, as any coach will confirm, but keeping smiles on the kids' faces is very much to the fore up in Ashbourne.
Ashbourne Club Community Officer (CCRO) Kevin McCleery is in his second year in the job and believes making rugby enjoyable is key to attracting the kids at a young age.
"Those who are in charge of the coaching courses, what they always try to instil in us is to play games with the kids," he said. "Whether it is at youth or mini level, they want to be playing, so it is up to you to mix up the games and make sure that they are still getting their rugby skills from it and learning from it."
In total, McCleery has 13 schools under his watch, including two secondary schools. It is a big number to have but as he explains, he receives great help and understanding from the teachers.
"It's impossible to be in every school all of the time so it's important to have a good relationship with the school. They know you will be in and they are very supportive.
"It works in cycles where you do a group of weeks in some schools and then another block with other schools once those are finished.
"Some of the primary schools, if you were not to get into them for some reason, they would make sure you came in for their Active Schools week or something like that. You get everyone covered throughout the year eventually.
"I must say that all the schools and teachers are very welcoming and supportive and always lending their help if they can.
"They are also very understanding that certain things might crop up from time to time that will change the schedule.
"Often you would have to change a day or time that you will be in a particular school, and they are very accommodating."
A native of Drogheda, McCleery has taken in different perspectives when it comes to rugby coaching and his stints abroad have benefited him in his work.
"I am from Drogheda and have played all my rugby with Boyne. I played a full season in Auckland for a team and also played in Canada and England while I was doing a bit of travelling.
"They were good experiences and it was good to see things from a different perspective."
The area of Ashbourne is forever growing but it still has that sense of togetherness where the rugby club is a focal point of the community.
Their first team won the All-Ireland Junior Cup a few months back to make it three All-Ireland Cups in a row. McCleery believes their success captured the imagination of the entire town.
They beat the all-conquering Enniscorthy in the final, which took place in Edenderry, and the win boosted the entire club.
"It is a good area. While it is a big area and still growing, it is not too big so everyone still knows everything that is going on.
"You can get a sense from the town if there was a final going on - everyone would know it's happening.
"After the club had their All Ireland win, we had a minis session on the Sunday morning and all the young kids were talking about the final the day before.
"It is an easy ice-breaker with the schools as well when you are getting back in touch - they would often say that they heard about the senior team doing well."
Numbers in Ashbourne RFC are also on the rise and while that brings its own challenges, the club is delighted to be in such a strong position, with kids from six years of age right up to adults catered for through the grades.
"This year there was a weekend in the season where there was a match on at every single level, from minis up to U-20s and senior, and I think that was the first time that happened in the club. That is a sign that things are going well.
"The minis numbers for the summer camps are up every year and we do a couple of independent camps ourselves at, say, Easter and Halloween. The numbers for those tend to be high also."
Women's rugby is also on the radar at Ashbourne RFC, but it is very much a work in progress.
They hope to see the numbers of girls in the club rise in the near future, with initiatives like the 'give it a try' programme coming on stream.
McCleery added: "There is some really good work going in to try and get the girls' game up and going. At the moment the girls at youth level play with a combined team from Ashbourne, Balbriggan and Skerries.
"It is growing and next week we start the 'give it a try' programme, so hopefully we will get a couple of extra players as a result of it."
The club was founded in 1974 and has a long and storied tradition. Facilities have always been a priority in the club and in 2007 they made significant developments to their grounds.
They added two all-weather pitches with floodlights, and since then development has continued. Ashbourne has now developed its 15-acre site, which includes four floodlit pitches. One of these pitches is an up-to-date, 4G playing surface, while the other three are all-weather too.
These facilities have enabled Ashbourne to host a range of inter-provincial and club/school games.
In 2008/09 the club hosted their first women's international when Ireland took on France, and this proved to be the start of a relationship with the Irish women's team.
They went on to claim the Six Nations title in 2013, with the home games against England and France taking place in Ashbourne.
Overall, it is clear that Ashbourne RFC is a progressive club that continues to look forward.
Kevin McCleery is one cog in the wheel but with success across the board and facilities to boot, the club is thriving.