Sunday 24 February 2019

Hundred up for Tipp club as they seek promotion once more

Long-serving president thrilled to see the hard work paying off, writes Daragh Small

Rory Scannell is tackled by Conor Oliver, left, as the Munster players swopped a round ball for an oval ball in training this week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Rory Scannell is tackled by Conor Oliver, left, as the Munster players swopped a round ball for an oval ball in training this week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cashel's minis side leaving the clubhouse ahead of their trip to London Irish

Pat O'Connor works six days a week and combines his life as a vet with the role of president at All-Ireland League club Cashel, who are on the brink of promotion in Division 2A - during their centenary year.

It's a hectic schedule for the Cashel native but O'Connor loves being involved in rugby, a game he first picked up as a boarder at Newbridge College 58 years ago.

"I was only 13 when I started playing and I began at Newbridge," said O'Connor.

"If you didn't play rugby it was hard to survive in there."

O'Connor attended Newbridge along with future Ireland internationals Mick Quinn, Robbie McGrath and Tom Grace. But coming from a hurling hotbed, rugby was never going to be the first port of call for O'Connor.

He played hurling with the local Cashel King Cormacs club and went on to win county honours with Tipperary. He scored 1-3 for the county's U-21 side when they defeated Dublin in the 1967 All-Ireland final.

O'Connor's first big break in club rugby came in 1965 when the scrum-half was called up to play for Cashel due to a shortage of No 9s.

"There was only really one team, a first team. I don't think there was any seconds team," O'Connor explained.

"I played my first game of rugby with Cashel when I was only 17. They were stuck for a scrum-half against Nenagh around Christmas time. Cashel had a good team and we only got beaten 5-3. It was a wet day above in the Showgrounds in Nenagh. That's a big local derby.

"I missed a heap of years until I was qualified as a vet. I missed about five years and then I was playing since I was about 19. I'm playing rugby since about 1973. I'm 72 now, I played until I was 38 and I loved it."

Spafield, the home of Cashel rugby, has undergone a massive facelift since the days when O'Connor first took to the field there.

"There was only one field with a dressing-room and one or two cold showers. But now it's a two-storey building with heated dressing-rooms and upstairs we have a lounge where we can have a dance or whatever. We got that built during the good times.

Former Munster and Ireland back-row, and fellow Cashel man, Denis Leamy now coaches the first team as they embark on a potential historic promotion to Division 1B in their 100th year.

Cashel are currently just three points behind Munster rivals Highfield in 2A, but the club have found it more difficult to prosper in the younger age grades.

"We have three senior teams: first, seconds and thirds. But we are finding it very difficult to supply an U-18 team," said O'Connor.

"The minute they go away to college they are gone. They go to Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The biggest problem is we have younger players who are up to 12. When they go to Rockwell they can't play with Cashel. They lose contact with the club then.

"Any of the good rugby players that play with us before they go to Rockwell, they can't play with us once they start in the school, even if Rockwell get beaten in the first round."

Cashel is situated right at the heart of the county with sports available left, right and centre.

And the job opportunities nearby mean they differ from most other rural clubs.

"It's a fabulous area, the land is good. There is lots of employment around with Coolmore and things like that. It's fine that way," said O'Connor.

"There is a lot of employment around with Coolmore but it's mainly farmers' sons who play with us. But hurling is the big sport in Cashel still. Several players play both games. An awful lot play both sports."

O'Connor remains busy in a massive year for the club. A win at Balreask Old next weekend would keep things ticking over nicely.

"Highfield beat us with a try in the last minute and I think we would have beaten them that day with a full team because we had a guy sent-off in the first minute," said O'Connor.

"We have to play them again in the second-last game of the year and that looks set to be a really good match. We have to travel to Navan in the next round and they are third, they are a very good side.

"An awful lot of our players would have played senior rugby. Our captain at the moment was captain of Cork Con a few years ago, James Ryan. Our out-half played for Cork Con for years.

"We have a few players that should have been with us but they are gone to play with the Munster academy.

"Sean O'Connor is playing with Garryowen and Munster. He is a flanker, a big, tall fella. There is young Diarmuid Barron who is hooker, and there is Mikey Wilson who is with the Connacht academy.

"John Fogarty, one of the coaches for Leinster, he is a Cashel man. So is his brother Denis. They both played for Munster in their time.

"It was always a thriving club. There was a history of rugby in Cashel. A lot of the same families have been there the whole time. We have a fabulous committee and secretary."

But 2019 will be another big year for O'Connor as he looks to get the celebrations in full swing, and hopefully welcome in the centenary festivities along with a successful promotion swoop.

"I became president of the club about five years ago. I don't mind it but the problem is I work six days a week and we have to go to the north three or four times in the year. That is a whole Saturday gone," said O'Connor.

"The day of the match is not too bad, I would be working until 1pm and I am able to take it off after that.

"But it's not as bad as it sounds, I enjoy the challenge."

Irish Independent

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