Bruff RFC: 'We were flying until Dublin clubs raided us'
Club Focus: Nation's financial troubles saw team torn asunder, but focus on youth has rural Limerick men on the up again
Nicholas Cooke lives and breathes rugby, but more so Bruff RFC - the current president of the club was one of the founding members when they were set up in 1969-70.
Since then there have been massive changes in the club, Ireland internationals such as the legendary John 'the Bull' Hayes have been and gone, players have left Co Limerick and moved to more prosperous areas in search of work, but as the tides have changed the ex-players returned.
Bruff were promoted to Ulster Bank League for the first time in 2004, and since then they have gone up and down the leagues.
The Knockainey men have settled in Division 2C; they are seventh in the standings prior to their next fixture, against Rainey on January 21.
And with an outstanding underage structure, the future looks bright.
Yet none of that would have been possible had Cooke and Willie Conway not made the move to create a brand new rugby club in Baggotstown all those years ago.
"It means everything to me. It has been my life for the last 46 years since the start of the club," says Cooke.
"Myself and Willie just set it up out of boredom and having something to do on a Sunday evening.
"We had plenty of fellas that played rugby, the whole community had played. I had played and my brother Rob had played.
"My neighbours played in Munchin's, they all played rugby in schools because going to boarding schools was common in those days.
"When you came out of school you had no rugby and that's how we formed. We had enough fellas to play it and we just decided to go ahead and do it in the end."
Cooke beams with pride when he talks about the club and what is has achieved since it came to being. He played with Rockwell College, before joining Shannon, and subsequently he created Bruff RFC and went on to play with them from 1970 up until 1982.
It was just a small junior club at the time, but backed by some of the great underage talent in the area the club grew and grew.
And Cooke is so grateful to Lieutenant Colonel The O'Grady, head of the O'Grady clan, who was the first president of the club and afforded them the opportunity to play on the hallowed turf at Kilballyowen Park, where they remain to this day.
"He was the landlord in Kilballyowen, and he gave us the grounds. Without that we wouldn't have been able to do anything so we are always grateful," says Cooke.
And with Bruff beginning to enjoy success at underage level, once they eventually took their chance to join the big leagues 12 years ago, they never looked back.
"The success didn't just happen by magic overnight. It was through our underage teams that we went up," explains Cooke.
"We won an All-Ireland underage. We had three Cahills, we had three Carrolls, and Mickie Cahill had captained Munchin's to win the Senior Cup.
"Brian Cahill and Tony Cahill played for Munchin's. It was all a gradual process for us. Their fathers were around at the start of the club.
"Brendan Daly was full-back, they were all in the Munchin's team. Mick Carroll, you had Tony Cahill and Brian Cahill. Eoin Cahill had already won three or four senior AILs with Shannon.
"He was actually a Bruff player but we had no senior team at the time. He came back to us then again and we went on and won an All-Ireland, we beat Dungannon in the All-Ireland final."
All of that success kept Bruff afloat in the Ulster Bank League, and although they have struggled to reach the top two divisions in recent years, they continue to win titles through their youth structures.
"We are still very strong at underage because we compete all the time at U-20s and U-18s. We are regularly winning at U-18s maybe not so at U-20s," says Cooke.
"We are not winning All-Irelands but we are still one of the strongest U-20s sides around. We have been in the last three Munster U-18 finals.
"We got beat by Waterpark last year and we got beat by Newcastle West the year before, and we won it the year before. We are always there or thereabouts."
Like everything in the game, the Ulster Bank League has come in for criticism from time to time. However, gradually it has come roaring back with players getting capped for their provinces before they go on to play internationally.
The latest example is Joey Carbery, who starred for Clontarf in last season's Division 1A final against Cork Con, before he continued his brilliant rise by getting capped for Ireland against the All Blacks in Chicago.
It shows the value of the Ulster Bank League, and Cooke knows only too well what it means to the community of Bruff.
And even though a lot of their players do end up at the bigger clubs, or heading to Dublin in search of employment, he knows there is still a possibility that Bruff can become one of the strongholds some day in the future.
"We were flying until 2008, until the Dublin clubs raided us," he says. "They had to because we had no job for our guys. If the economy around Limerick was better, if our fellas had jobs we would have no problem.
"But we have fellas coming home now and our guys are coming back.
"When a fella comes out of UL, if he can get a job locally he will be playing rugby. If he has to go to Dublin it makes it more difficult. But all of the Limerick clubs are suffering from that; we are not the only ones.
"The Ulster Bank League is such a vital part of Irish rugby. It gave the junior clubs a chance to show what they are made of when it was created.
"You have Nenagh going great guns now and other clubs like Cashel doing really well. Naas are ready to make the step up now too.
"All the leagues up along are full of strong junior clubs. All of those junior clubs are staying up there now and it's great to see. It made us senior clubs and gave us something to aim at."