Deep love of the game as strong as ever
Groundwork bearing fruit for Shannon and senior form improving as young players graduate to top level, writes Declan Rooney
It has been a tough couple of seasons in the second tier of Irish club rugby for the county's record league winners, but if their recent form serves as a barometer, Shannon RFC will be back in Division 1A before too long.
Nine titles means Shannon are still four ahead of champions Cork Con on the honours board, but the last triumph of 2008-09 seems a long time ago, and even longer still is the marvellous four-in-a-row completed in 2006.
But under the leadership of coaches Tom Hayes and David O'Donovan, Shannon have showed impressive growth this season.
Nine wins from their 11 games means they lead second-placed Ballynahinch by four points and they will look to cement that lead when the competition returns at the end of the month.
And while the club is enjoying their return to winning ways, club PRO Katie McCloskey explains that there has always been so much more to Shannon RFC than their eye-catching seniors.
"We always say in the club a league has never been won this early in the season. You can't really be sure of anything, every fixture throws up something different. It is never in the bag until it's actually won. We are happy but cautiously happy I suppose," said Katie.
"We have a lot of home-grown players involved. All the lads have matured in the last couple of seasons, they have grown a bit more wise and you can see the trust that has been built up over the years. It's great to see it.
"They have been playing together for years, there is great friendships there. That's what we strive for in Shannon: to produce home-grown players. Through the grades you see exciting prospects, you love to see them make their senior rugby and then get the platform to progress on to professional rugby. That's what we want."
But before those talented few take the step into the Munster senior squad there is a lot of nurture that's added to their rugby nature. That work starts at the U-5 grade, and more than 400 players under the age of 18 take part in youths rugby each Sunday in Coonagh.
The club's Good Friday Festival of Rugby for U-10s, 11s, 12s and 13s teams has become one of the biggest events in Munster club rugby and according to Katie, honing an interest in rugby for their youngsters is priority number one.
"The underage game is doing really well. Sunday morning is just a hive of activity with every age group playing and training. It's a brilliant sight.
"We have over 50 Munster-accredited underage coaches, but we are always looking to build that.
"Our senior players are fantastic to row in. They'll have had a match on Saturday but you'll always see some of them there to pitch in with the kids."
After 16 years in the blue and black shirt McCloskey is still eager to play her part in the women's game and she says she is excited by the way it is constantly growing in Shannon.
"We recently started girls' U-10 tag rugby, just to help them along as a step towards U-13, full-contact rugby.
"We have about 50 girls playing that at the moment. We said we'd start the tag rugby for the girls to see how it went and it has grown from that.
"That all feeds into U-13s girls, U-15s and U-18s, which feeds into our senior ladies side. Our U-15s girls were recently in a Munster league final in December, but they lost out to Fethard and District. It is very positive.
"The ladies senior team currently play in Division 1 Munster conference. We have a panel of about 30 ladies playing. We are second in the league and have qualified for the All-Ireland Cup. We beat Galwegians and they are a Division 1 team. So we are putting down a very good season.
"We were also the first club in the county to field at U-20 girls level.
"There is no U-20s at international level so there is no competition, but we have the numbers and we recently played the first ever fixture against the UL Wolves college team. We'd love to see that grow in the future too."
While the on-field work is certainly bearing fruit, a number of off-field projects have caught the eye at Shannon.
They recently became one of the first club teams to carry a charity as their jersey sponsor and have linked up with Barnardos for that.
Indeed, their work was given a real boost when the Shannon senior team took to the local supermarket to conduct some grocery packing in aid of Barnardos's national bucket collection.
But a link with LIT and the Shannon U-20s promises to develop their players as players and professionals.
"Our U-20s have linked up with LIT in an educational partnership. If we can get the U-20 girls off the ground it'd be good to do it for them too.
"It is an educational partnership. LIT are offering personal development to our players while we bring our rugby expertise to them.
"We're really excited by the possibilities of that."
The club's recent history has not been without tragedy though, and the death of club legend Anthony Foley in 2016 hit the members particularly hard.
A linchpin from that four-in-a-row team, Foley and his family have always been Shannon to the bone and next Friday the club will unveil their memorial of him.
"Anthony is always going to be a massive presence in Shannon. He always was. His death was such a shocking experience for everyone in the club. He has close personal friends here and young guys come up and they aspire to be Anthony Foley. Their family is ingrained in our club.
"We wanted to pay a fitting tribute to him and we wanted it to be unique to Shannon, something that represents him and the club. I haven't seen the bust yet, but I hear it is brilliant.
"It will be given pride of place in the club house. We have the unveiling next week and it will be a night for his former team-mates and club members - it will be emotional night again, but we really want to honour Anthony again."
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