Fethard & District RFC: Volunteers keep Tipp outfit alive and thriving on the field
Club a beacon of hope for the game as both codes hit new heights, says Daragh Small
The Fethard & District U-16 girls have not lost a competitive game in three seasons while the senior men now operate in Division 2 of Munster junior rugby. It's been a sensational 17 years so far for the club from south Tipperary.
The club have the pick of Fethard, Ballingarry, Mullinahone, Cahir and into parts of Cashel and Thurles, but these are traditionally GAA-mad areas and it has taken some massive volunteering and plenty of long hours to make things work for the code with egg-shaped ball.
"Fethard has a very big history in Gaelic football down through the years. But in the latter few years it has been very hard to get teams playing. Rugby has come on leaps and bounds," says club president Pat O'Donnell.
"There was a history of rugby in the area back in the 1960s. That generation had children and grandchildren and it fed into it.
"But people in Fethard who were interested in rugby went to different clubs, the likes of Clonmel, Cashel and Thurles. There was a feeling that there was an opening in Fethard for a rugby club.
"A lot of people from around the Fethard area would have gone to rugby schools down through the years and have come back and have been involved in setting up the club."
O'Donnell is from Colman just outside the small town of Fethard. He played rugby in Rockwell College but never wore the blue and white strip of his native club.
However, he has been involved with the committee for over 12 years now and recently oversaw the men's promotion to Division 2, with coach Paul Kavanagh driving everything behind the scenes.
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"When we got promoted up it was great to see all of the younger players coming back. They were still only 19 or 20 years of age.
"In the past they wouldn't have played rugby locally, once they got to college they would have given up," says O'Donnell.
"While we had a seconds team it was seen as an older age group, fellas coming up to retirement. We pulled in a few young players at the time. It was a great mix.
"Once we went up to second division a lot of young players saw it as a better opportunity to play stronger teams.
"We have gone up into second division this year and we have had three wins out of four matches in that division.
"We are still a very young club. Past players, their kids haven't come back yet. It's very hard to get people involved in the club for training and all of that. We are very limited with coaches and keeping things ticking along.
"We don't have the retired player coming back yet. It's starting to come that way though. After five years being up with the senior squad, those players are still involved in the squad, and especially in the second division they are coming back to support us."
O'Donnell originally joined up with Fethard & District League when his son Cathal decided to play rugby. Cathal came through the ranks from minis all the way to U-18s but eventually stepped away from the fold.
However, O'Donnell's two daughters, Ciara and Orla, are still very interested. The latter went on to play with Munster U-18 last year and she was joined there by Jennifer Fogarty, Claire Bennett, Faye Dowling and Kate Grayson Molloy.
"Ladies rugby has really blossomed in the last five years. We have girls teams at U-16 and U-18 for the last couple of years, they have been very competitive," says O'Donnell.
"Our U-16 girls have won every competition. Our U-18s have got to a couple of finals but were pipped at the post. There is an U-13 team and minis girls playing with the minis boys. Numbers have been huge at training.
"It's their commitment, they will train twice a week where the boys won't. We have a good group and we have a girl there, Polly Murphy, who has been spearheading women's rugby in Munster for the last few years. She was up there earlier in the week where she was presented with volunteer of the month.
"For the inter-provincials we have had five girls on the Munster team for the last two years, they were winners there two years ago. We have had five different girls in each year.
"We also have a girl who has gone on to Ireland Sevens, Dorothy Wall is on the Irish panel there."
From the men's side of things Ross McCormack was the trailblazer with Patrick Scully and Jack O'Rourke also going on to represent their province in recent years. O'Donnell, who is also treasurer, became president of the club three years ago and he is determined to facilitate more change as the 2017 Munster mini club of the year go from strength to strength and reinvent themselves to stay competitive with other sports in the area.
"Minis would get opportunities to play between Champions Cup games, they play at half-time every so often. We get a team up there each season be it U-9, U-10 or U-12.
"We also organise trips to see matches in Thomond or in the Aviva," adds O'Donnell.
"In the past we have gone to Italy and England with juvenile teams, U-13 and U-17 went to Italy for a competition a couple of years ago. They got great value out of it, they got to play teams from other countries, England, France and Italy, in a tournament there."
All of the good work begins at Fethard Community Field where the rugby team share the facilities with the local athletic club.
"We had the opportunity to build a new clubhouse about eight or nine years ago. It's a great modern facility," says O'Donnell.
"We turned around then and put up lights. There were existing lights but they weren't match-fit, we spent around €120,000 there two or three years ago so we can train in the dark.
"Friday night is the best night in rural Ireland to train. That's when we seem to get good crowds for training. Plus the coaches are working on Saturdays and some Sunday mornings. It's hard to get them to commit."