A hotbed of talent in the heart of Limerick
Club Focus: St Mary's RFC
Most junior rugby clubs envy the facilities of their senior counterparts but St Mary's RFC are an exception. The Limerick-based club has been on the go since 1943 and boast an impressive facility including a sand-based pitch.
Interestingly, this pitch was laid by Nick Greene who was involved in a similar project when Thomond Park underwent its redevelopment work a few years ago. Greene is the groundsman in Thomond Park and his work with St Mary's has contributed to the club's stellar set-up.
"We have absolutely fantastic facilities," explains club PRO Eoghan O'Byrne. "We've got a sand-based pitch and top-rate floodlights. There was over €300,000 put into our facilities about ten years ago. The sand-based pitch is top-end. It helps with the bad weather and the absorption of the excess water. Instead of it staying on the top, it actually seeps through the sand and we also have a drainage system underneath to get rid of it."
Senior clubs find it easier to attract players due to their status but St Mary's feels it surpasses any senior club when it comes to facilities and this acts as one of the main attractions of the Corbally-based club.
"We can offer facilities that senior clubs can't," declares O'Byrne. "We mightn't have the same playing numbers as they have but the aim is to attract people to come down and see the facilities we have and hope that they get involved and play with the club."
The club's committee realise the importance of bringing young players through to boost the senior side and they have put a major emphasis on the promotion of underage rugby. The minis section caters for players from U-8s to U-12s while the youth section has U-14s and U-18s boys' teams as well as a both an U-13 and an U-15 girls' side. O'Byrne was quick to note the strength of the underage section which currently boasts its largest ever player pool.
"Unfortunately, over the last 15 or 16 years the underage wasn't that strong but the last three or four years have been fantastic. We're fielding the most underage players that we've ever fielded at the moment.
"Ourselves and Shannon are the only clubs with a girls' set-up in Limerick city and we've got U-13 and U-15 girls' sides. When you put everyone together, there's over 130 or 140 in the underage which is massive considering six or seven years ago you'd have only been talking about 40 or 50.
"The aim at the moment is to develop the underage structure of the club."
The promotion of women's rugby is important in St Mary's and the club have a number of ambassadors in that regard. Former underage player Chloe Pearse is a current member of Ireland's Women's squad, while Stephanie Nunan has represented Ireland on the U-18s Women's Sevens circuit.
St Mary's senior side were unfortunate to be relegated from the Munster Junior League Division 1 last season but the club have its sights set firmly on promotion says O'Byrne. "The aim is to get promoted. Two teams get promoted from Division 2 every year. It's not a foregone conclusion by any means. It'll be a tough battle but the aim is to finish second and if not then we'll develop again next year. We were in Division 1 for about four years and we got relegated last year on points difference. The aim is to get back to Division 1 and cement ourselves there."
John Keehan is the head coach of the side while Gordon Ryan is assistant coach and their charges have won seven of their eight games to date in Division 2. The Limerick side defeated Mallow and Kinsale in their first two games before going down 32-3 at home to Waterpark in the third round of league games. But they soon got back to winning ways with victories over Presentation, Ballincollig, Ennis and Charleville.
Last Sunday, St Mary's continued their winning streak with a 14-8 victory away to Crosshaven. This win sees the Limerick club move up to second in the table. St Mary's next game sees them host Castleisland on Sunday at 2.30pm and captain Brian Purcell and his team-mates will look to record their sixth win on the bounce and continue their push for promotion against their Kerry visitors.
Waterpark are top of the league with 37 points but St Mary's have 31 points and lead the chasing pack with Youghal, Thurles and Waterford City all hot on their heels in what is a very tight league.
A number of notable players have played for St Mary's down through the years including the late Anthony Foley.
Brendan Foley, Anthony's father, won the Munster Junior Cup with St Mary's in 1968 which remains St Mary's only ever Junior Cup triumph. Anthony himself played for the club at underage level before moving on to play for Shannon, Munster and Ireland.
Another famous former player from the club is Colm Tucker. The late Tucker began his rugby career with St Mary's before going on to represent Shannon.
The back-row forward won three caps for Ireland and also toured with the British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 1980.
Sean Kennedy, who is a member of Edinburgh's first team squad, also began his rugby career with the Limerick club. The scrum-half linked up with Edinburgh in 2011 and has made a number of appearances for the Scotland U-20 side as well as Scotland's Sevens side. "He came through our underage structure before he moved to Scotland," remarks O'Byrne. "I think he left for Scotland when he was about 13. He actually gave us his Scotland Sevens jersey. It's on the wall in the clubhouse. He made the presentation to the club when he came back a few years ago."
ST MARY'S RFC
Address: Grove Island, Limerick
President: Christopher McNamara
Head coach: John Keehan
Captain: Brian Purcell