Incremental progress, one small school at a time, the key
Rugby is making strides in south Offaly with the Birr club at centre of it, says Brian Lowry
Living away from home and finding himself unable to commit to playing junior club rugby turned out to be a crucial turning point for Denis Rusu, as he made the switch to coaching and soon found himself immersed in the game as Club Community Rugby Officer (CCRO) for Birr RFC.
Denis, who moved to Ireland from Moldova at the age of just six, played the game throughout his youth but after taking up a course in Business, Sport and Recreation in Waterford IT, he was forced to reconsider his options.
"I played all the way up along and I always loved the game, but you see the lads at home training two or three times a week and then playing games at the weekend, and I just wasn't able to commit to that. I played down here in college all right, but all I could do was to get involved in some coaching," he explains.
"I took up coaching at Minis on a Sunday morning. Whilst in college I also got the opportunity to do 14 weeks of work placement with Leinster Rugby, where I shadowed the CCRO before me.
"Then I got the call to be asked if I would take on the role in the summer of 2018, and it's been great, I really enjoy it."
For many people not familiar with the rugby landscape in South Offaly, the first team that comes to mind is Cistercian College in Roscrea, who crowned a long tradition of competitiveness in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup with their first ever win in the competition four years ago.
However Birr Rugby Club themselves have a strong tradition at youths and minis level, going back to the 1970s when they were a pioneering club in underage rugby. Rusu is very keen to continue that tradition.
With a large number of small schools in a predominantly rural area feeding into the club, he has been busy trying to ensure that there is a solid foundation at minis level, with the aim to build on that base through youths rugby in the years ahead.
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"I grew up in Birr town and went to St Brendan's primary school, but around us we have seven rural parishes, all with their own GAA club but none with a rugby club.
"Rugby isn't the first sport that a lot of our local children see or think of, but the local schools have been very open and encouraging. I go in and I just try and get girls and boys to enjoy the game and to have fun with it, to show them that it's another option for them.
"We had seven primary schools on board at the start of the 2018/'19 season, we added two more during the year and I hope to add two more for the start of next season. We run a number of blitzes and tag rugby competitions to give the kids a taste of the game, and all the time we're keen to make sure that they enjoy it, that the blitzes are fun occasions. Then we try to encourage them to come along to the club, and that's been going well, we've good numbers there."
Rusu remains realistic, however, about the sporting landscape, and knows that progress has to be incremental. He knows that all children, rural and urban, have a lot of options when it comes to what sports they play, and that he has to work within that environment.
"When you talk about the town of Birr, a lot of people think about hurling first, but I played soccer in school myself, there's Gaelic football here, there's a good golf club, and we have some children involved in basketball. That's great; the most important thing is that children are happy, healthy and active, and we're working to make sure rugby is part of that.
"We try to work with other sports where we can, and sometimes that means starting the club season very late. Last year the GAA club activity went on until October, so we only started in November, and then we work club training around those sports.
"We see some other clubs trying to force their players to choose, but that's not something we believe in. Of course if a young player wants to focus on rugby we'll do all we can to support them and give them all the coaching and games that they need, but we know that it's far more common for boys and girls to play multiple sports. Everyone I work with in Birr Rugby Club knows and respects that. I've never heard of anyone asking players to choose."
However, he knows that to take the next step, getting local post-primary schools to buy in will be crucial.
"We have seen a fall-off in numbers when it comes to youths rugby, from age 14 up, and we're working on that in the club. But we've seen how important the schools are to that. We started girls' rugby in St Brendan's Community School here in town and of the group that togged out for the first training session, only two of them had played rugby before. They didn't know the game and it was all about starting from scratch with them, but a handful of them kept up the game and a couple of them were part of the Birr club team that won a Leinster League title this year.
"It's a bit tougher to get into the school to play boys rugby, as I'd say there's a bit of fear there that we might impact on the hurling. But we'd be very happy to work around that, and I think they'd find that the sports would complement each other, if they were given a chance.
"Look at what happened in Gallen Community School, which is 20 minutes up the road in Ferbane. Gaelic football was the main sport there, but they opened the door to rugby and soon both sports were thriving in there. They've won All-Ireland football titles, and this year were in a Connacht Schools development final.
"We've been delighted to get into Coláiste na Sionna in Banagher, which is another nearby school, and there are some great teachers in there who've really encouraged what we're doing. If we can keep making that sort of progress, I've no doubt we'll keep more players involved in the game and if we do that, I'll be happy we're still going in the right direction."