Saturday 20 July 2019

Community holds key to two-county club's rise

Club Focus: Ballina Killaloe RFC

The under-14 side who are this year’s North Munster Conference champions
The under-14 side who are this year’s North Munster Conference champions
Connacht’s Jack O’Mahony and Harry Byrne of Munster U-19s, who learned their trade with Ballina Killaloe RFC

Declan Rooney

An U-19 inter-provincial game between Munster and Connacht produced an interesting photo opportunity for two youngsters on opposing teams.

In the red shirt was Munster's Harry Byrne and in the green of Connacht was Jack O'Mahony. The common thread for the duo though was that they both learned their trades and came up through the ranks together with Ballina Killaloe RFC before their careers took separate paths.

Seeing the two players line out at the Sportsground was a huge honour for the club, their former coaches and their parents, and according to Ballina Killaloe RFC's Robert Graham, it was a joy to see their groundwork come to fruition.

"It was great to see two of our former youth players in action last weekend. We're keen to develop that sort of player in the future, players who will go on to provincial honours," says Graham.

"Harry played for Munster and has also donned the Irish jersey underage as well, which is a lovely thing for the club.

"But we were delighted to see both of them staying in the game, keeping on playing and the fact that they both have the opportunity to live up to their rugby potential is a big thing. That's what we are keen to develop here."

Funnily enough, the Connacht links with Ballina Killaloe RFC does not end there as another of the club's graduates, Shane O'Leary, was on the Connacht squad that was crowned PRO12 champions in 2015.

honours O'Leary has recently gone on to play international rugby this summer as he made his debut for Canada. His is the latest name to be added to the honours board in the club, and what a proud history the club can boast over the years.

Top of the list in many hearts in Ballina and Killaloe is former Munster and Ireland star Anthony Foley, while his father Brendan is currently club president. Anthony's fond friend Keith Wood is another of the former players that learned their trade with the club and remains involved to this day, and like his father Gordon, Keith went on to win Irish and Lions caps. Quite the honour for the small club.

But, according to Robert, the club is still coming to terms with the shock death of Anthony last year, and almost a year on from his passing in Paris he is still fondly remembered.

"It was a tough day when we heard the news, especially when there was games going on that morning down in Clarisford Park, which is where we play. Keith Wood helps out there and Anthony's young boys play with our club.

"But it was great the way that the community rallied around and really stood by the Foley family. Brendan Foley is our club president, so we wanted to stand by them as much as we could. They have always supported us so well, so we felt it was important that we were there for them too."

Twelve years since O'Mahony and Byrne started their time with the club the most recent recruits have already started their new season. Mini rugby has proven to be massively popular once again this season with the players taking on their third session of the season this evening.

With teams at all grades from U-7 up to U-15, the club's colours are proudly worn far and wide, and most recently success was brought to the club by last season's U-14 boys team who won the North Munster Conference Final with victory over Old Crescent in the decider. The U-13 fell one step short of that was defeat in the final, but Graham is encouraged by the talent on the way through the club.

"The minis are back in the last two weeks and we are delighted with them so far. The minis and youths train with us here on Friday evenings.

"We have had girls teams here for the last two years too which is brilliant. The girls train on Wednesday, and this year we have 45 girls between the ages of 13 and 18. We'll have teams in the U-15 and U-18 leagues and they are both hopeful of doing well."

Decades ago Ballina Killaloe RFC was regarded as one of the mainstays in the game of rugby in the province especially during the 1970s and '80s when the team played Junior 1 level.

Unfortunately, due to a rapid fall-off in playing numbers, the club went into hibernation in 1997. It was born again in 2002 though and progress was made from the bottom up, with focus on introducing youngster to rugby and honing the basics of the game. But ultimately, Robert says that everyone in the club would love to see a junior team back in action in the area.

"The club was reformed in 2002 when the boom brought an influx of young families into the area again and there was an appetite for the game and it took off again.

"We started off with minis and youths and it has grown steadily since then.

"Once players hit U-15 they often head off and play other sports, and their schools take on their rugby. There has always been plenty of options for players, but we are keen to progress that slowly ourselves though.

"Junior is the ultimate level. It is the hope and aspiration for us. It's a matter of having a critical mass of players. You really need more than 21 or 22 players to compete, guys get injured or can't make games.

"Hopefully in the next couple of years we might be able to do that, but we have other demands as well."

With so many other sports to battle for playing time with, it is an ongoing mission to keep the club on healthy footing, and Robert is keen to thank the local sponsors that keep the club active.

"We have great support in the area from our sponsors, which means we can keep teams going. Companies like Queally's SuperValu, Technopath Industries, Icon Auto, Kavanagh's Butchers, Tirecheck and are a huge help to us.

"Ballina and Killaloe are twin towns in both Clare and Tipperary.

"We don't see eye to eye with hurling, but in rugby we come together for the love of the support. There is a great community togetherness there and that's a huge thing for us."

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