Kerry rugby alive and kicking in south-west
Club Focus: Iveragh Eagles
Plenty of rugby clubs have suffered from a fall-off in number over the years, but there is a real determination on the Iveragh Peninsula in south Kerry that the oval ball game will grow and thrive in the years to come.
Based round the town of Cahersiveen, Iveragh Eagles has forged a strong relationship with Coláiste na Sceilge over the years and it is through that local secondary school that the club aim to keep the game alive and see a full complement of teams back in the black shirt.
The club have just signed a 25-year lease at their base, which is locally known as 'over the water' - you have to cross the Castlequin bridge over the estuary to get there - and it's hoped that having somewhere to call home will give another lift to the spirited club.
Formed back in 2009 by a handful of rugby-mad locals like Dave Hussey, Tony Cournane - then in his late 40s - was one of the club's first players, and the current youth officer remembers the early days fondly.
"A few of us got together and we knew nothing about rugby. We did a bit of training and we played Killorglin in a challenge match. That was April and he following September we started competing in J2 in west Munster," says Cournane.
"I started playing in my late 40s; it was lunacy, but at the time I was able for it. There was a bunch of fellas around that were keen and mad enough to start playing rugby in such a Gaelic football stronghold. We wanted to get the game going and thankfully it's still alive.
PUshing "We were pretty green in those days, but from a 76-5 hockeying from Killarney early in the season, we progressed to pushing them close at the end of the season."
However, after a couple of games in the 2017-'18 season it was decided that the men's junior team could not compete in the competition due to dwindling numbers. But according to Tony, there is a real drive to have a team back competing in J2 before too long.
"The lads won a couple of trophies last season, but even in our second or third year we picked up a bit of silverware by beating Kenmare in the Galwey Foley Cup final, which really helped the club.
"Back then we had no bother putting out a squad. Nowadays a lot of lads have left the area. Once lads go to college, it is very hard for them to come home to train and play games.
"Unfortunately this season we just didn't have the numbers. We had a bare team and you cannot operate with 15 or 16 lads. It just won't work."
But despite the loss of their adult men's team, there remains huge hope for the game of rugby in the area. Iveragh Eagles continue to field teams at underage grades, and the minis game is steadily growing, but it is through the local school that the seeds of hope have been sown for the boys and girls game.
"The schools game came about when we saw the need to keep the mini players involved. When they get to U-14 they often go and play other sports, but if the option is there to play in the school it helps. I have a couple of daughters and my house is rugby-mad, and I said to my eldest girl who was 13 at the time, 'Go in and see can we get a bunch of girls and we'll try and kick it off'.
"A few girls were interested and the first year we managed to get an U-17 squad together for the emerging schools. In year two, which was last year, we had an U-15 team for the Munster Schools junior competition. We qualified for the finals day in CIT and they beat Abbeyfeale in the final, who are a very strong team.
"They are an incredible bunch of girls. They showed a grit and determination that day that would humble you. They weren't going to be denied. It was one of the best sporting occasions that I have even been involved in."
This year's U-15 team is currently preparing to defend the schools' 11-a-side title in March, while the boys game also continues to grow. This year more than 20 boys are developing under Paul Clifford's tutelage.
"A lot of them would have played mini rugby with us so they have a good grounding in the game. If we can keep them at it, they look very, very promising.
"For the club to grow we have got to have underage, either in the school or ideally with the club. When that interest is there, if we maintain it and they get to senior level, we'll have players who understand the game.
"We have a very good U-12 squad in the club, who we are very hopeful for, and we are doing a lot of work with Ray Gadsden, who is our community rugby officer. If these lads stick at it I'm confident we'll be heading in the right direction."
The natural side effect of a successful girls team in the school has been the growth of a senior women's team in Iveragh Eagles.
While Tralee remain the only senior ladies team in Kerry, it is hoped that the peninsula will soon be in a position to compete.
"The senior women's team are currently in training with the aim of fielding a team in the coming season. The talent is there, no doubt. One of the school's players, Leah Turner, was part of the successful Munster U-18 team this season. Another girl, Laoise O'Driscoll, recently came back from playing in America. It shows the potential is there in the club.
"We have a bunch of girls training as they seek to up our numbers. They are very keen to play and we have some very talented girls. We're getting great help from Munster women's CRO, Amanda Greensmith, who comes down to us regularly."
Over the years sponsors like Quirkes Builder Providers were there for Iveragh Eagles to get the club off the ground, while coaches and volunteers like Rob Mahony, Seamus Curran, Geoff Bates, David Cairns, Trish Donnelly, John Draper and Karen Devane continue to play a huge role in the club.
"We are always looking for new people to come in, be it as players or to help out at training sessions.
"What I'd say is come to us for one day training and if you don't enjoying it, we're not doing our job properly."
The door is always open.