Club Focus: Déise men are ready to mark 125th anniversary
A focus on youth rugby and bridging the gap to the senior game sees Waterford City primed for success, writes Declan Rooney
Around the turn of the year Waterford City RFC will have a massive celebration to mark the 125th anniversary of their establishment. For one of Ireland's oldest clubs, it is a special celebration and one that they would dearly like to mark with a season to remember.
Currently Waterford City ply their trade in Division 2 of the Munster Junior League, and the dream season finale would see them promoted into the top flight, but with a very young squad and a long season ahead it is a big ask for the navy and white hoops.
The early indications are bright. A big win over Ballincollig was followed by defeat to Clonakilty last weekend, but according to club president Dave O'Connor, they are hoping for a second victory of the season over Killarney on Sunday.
"We are not too bad this season. We have a lot of young lads coming though and that's the challenge as always: getting the mixture of youth and experience and getting the older lads to hang around for a few more years," said O'Connor.
"I'm actually still playing myself. I turn 40 next year and I'm still propping. No getting rid of me, I suppose, and I wish they would. It gets harder and harder every season.
"I think we have 45 or 46 players, which means we are able to field two teams under the guidance of Simon O'Hara. Being realistic we have very young teams at times. The J2s on Saturday had an average age of 20 or 21 in the pack. It's great to see those lads involved, but it's a real challenge too."
Often regarded as the poor relation of Munster rugby, County Waterford has recently started to produce some hugely talented players.
Jack O'Donoghue is a native of the city and he is a graduate of rivals Waterpark, but Waterford RFC had two of their own players in the most recent Munster U-18 squad, as Seaghan Walsh and Luis Byrne represented their clubs with pride at provincial level.
Seeing youngsters take that step further is a big lift for everyone involved in the club, says O'Connor, and he is confident that there will be plenty of more honours like this in the future, such is their focus on juvenile rugby.
"Seaghan and Luis played for Munster recently. It's massive for us. They are lovely lads and it's great to see them getting their chance. We'd love to see them move up in class, but where we are in the province we are a good distance from senior clubs.
"It's something that we'll have to work on in the next few years.
"When you have young lads coming through with that type of talent you'd like to see it put to good use.
"We have a big drop-off after U-18s before they join the adult game. It's a massive step up. We've done a lot in the last four of five years to bridge those gaps.
"After Christmas the 18s come out and train with the senior team, it gives them a little taste so when they walk into an adult dressing room it's not as intimidating for them. They come in with their own friends and put names to faces at the very least.
"It has worked for us, we have good numbers there, as long as we can carry that on for the next few years we'll be OK."
While the men's game is thriving in Waterford, the women's game has fallen off in recent seasons due to a lack of playing numbers. According to Dave, it remains a real aim of the club to rekindle the women's game.
"We had a women's senior team a couple of years ago, but trying to keep girls involved can be difficult. We have a good few girls involved at mini rugby level.
"Elaine Anthony who was in the Ireland squad for the World Cup actually started out with us four of five years ago. She had never played before but came in to us.
"Having sufficient numbers was a real problem for us, but it is something we intend on coming back to in a couple of years - it's a big part of our five-year plan."
O'Connor is in his first season as club president and was club captain when the club celebrated its 120th anniversary.
He says it is a real thrill to see new and experienced parents coming along to get involved with the club as they guide their youngsters into the game. Without those volunteers the game would die a quick death, he says.
"Our volunteers are the lifeblood of the club. The like of Paul Ryan has played all the way up, but he's great to nab a parent who comes along and ask them if they want to be a coach.
"In recent years, as lads have retired we've asked them to come back and coach the kids for a couple of years. Passing on that knowledge is key for a club like us. We have loads of enthusiastic parents, but a good few of them might not have played too much. If we have former players to coach the parents it's vital.
"Every team right the way up has at least two coaches if not three. You really need those numbers when you're dealing with young rugby players."
In the 125 years since their inception there have been countless coaches, volunteers and players that have passed through the books at Waterford City RFC and they plan on honouring every one of those in the New Year.
"We have a gala ball in January so we are trying to get our exiting and past members back into us for the occasion. It's on in the Tower Hotel late in January and we hope to have a few familiar faces down for the night. We'd love to see as many of our former members there.
"It will be great to celebrate the club and see how far we have come. If you go back to the late '70s and early '80s we were barely putting a senior team out never mind an underage structure.
"Back then one of the club stalwarts Dixie Daniels was coach, captain and president, so we have certainly come a long way since then."