Only way is up as Banner girls rise to new cause
A renewed interest in the women's game in the area has seen the Co Clare outfit flourishing, as Declan Rooney discovers
With the province riding the wave of euphoria that another Champions Cup semi-final brings, there is also plenty of positive ripples in the club pond. And surely it's hard to trump the success that Ennis RFC has experienced in their first season back in the women's game.
Eight months ago the Banner County club decided to give then girls' game another shot in the club. There had been a senior women's team around the turn of the century, which operated for a couple of seasons before numbers dwindled, but the word from local parents was that there was an appetite there to give it another shot.
That passion was driven by one parent in particular, Lorchan Hoyne, who took on the responsibility and with his determination, club president Richard Murphy was delighted to sign off on the new team. It's fair to say they got more than they bargained for though.
"We started back again this year and said we'd give underage a run," says Richard. "We didn't think we'd be as busy as we were, we thought maybe one team might take off, but we were inundated so much so we were nearly overwhelmed by it.
"I was open to the idea through my belief that we didn't have enough women involved in the club in general, which was to our detriment. I was interested but Lorchan had a couple of daughters he wthat anted to introduce to the game. He did the groundwork for us in August and September and we opened the doors and bang! We were just walloped by the interest.
energy "Last Sunday for the final there were 35 girls with the U-15 squad and 38 with the U-18 squad. But it has been great, the girls brought great energy to the place and it has lifted everything in the club. It has been a fantastic year."
The progress has been incredible, so much so that two groups of total novices managed to win both the U-15 and U-18 bowl competitions. There have been a few bumps on the road along the way too, but Richard said he was amazed with how both teams grew into the game.
"There was no rugby in the schools that I'm aware of, so as far as I know, none of the girls had played before. Quite a number of them had brothers that played with us so they would have been in and around the place, but they were all new to the game. They are coming from Ennis and North Clare and making a real commitment to come in.
"They have been going well all year too. They played their first game in Kilrush. They were all excited going down and when it got closer and closer to kick-off time it was nearly like soldiers heading to war when the silence descended and the nerves started to kick in. But when the whistle went they just let loose and there has been no stopping them since."
After that first day out in Kilrush the feeling among the coaches was that they were ready to play some competitive games, while a series of friendly games around Christmas time kept the interest and progress going in a positive direction.
"Both groups won matches around then and everyone got game-time which meant we were confident entering them in competitions after Christmas," adds Murphy. "We were drawn away to Fethard in South Tipperary who are strong team and have been going a number of years, but we went down there and were competitive without threatening to win either of those games.
"It was a step up but it was an eye-opener for the girls too and they didn't shy away from it, which was the good thing. That was a cup competition and we went into the bowl competition after that defeat and we won a couple of games there and ended up in the finals. Finals day was held in Crescent Comp. and we were first out of the blocks with the U-15s and we played Tralee. We were that bit too strong for them and won it comfortable enough in the end. The second game with the U-18s was a much tighter affair all together against Abbeyfeale.
"That went down to the wire and we kicked a late penalty to win it. It was just a case of hanging on after that, but they got over the line and were delighted with themselves and rightly so. We all did a couple of laps of the town when we got home and there was great celebrations. It's nice to get that little bit of reward after all the slogging away in the wet and the muck and the dark all winter. All we ask from our teams is that they play hard and put in an honest effort and if the results come, well and good. They got their reward this year and we're all delighted for them especially considering it's year one."
There has been plenty of effort right around the club to make the season a successful one, with Alan Hardy working alongside Lorchan to ensure the girls are ready for action. Sponsors CH Marine and Kelly Refrigeration and Air Conditioning have been most generous, while Richard also paid tribute to the support of Munster Rugby in the process.
"We got great help from the women's community rugby officer, Amanda Greensmith, she has been a great assistance.
"The IRFU have an introductory programme for the women's game and it's a defined coaching process for the first six weeks. I think it's 12 sessions just to introduce the game to the girls. They all went through that and they loved it. That was a big help: starting from scratch like that you need all the help so having the IRFU system in place to follow was great.
"On foot of the interests we are going to have three teams at U-14, 16 and 18 next year. It will make for an interesting year logistically within the club, considering we have only the one pitch. We are renting some ground that we train on as well, but it is very tight. We are trying to get a project ready for the next Sports Capital grant window.
"But there is a great vibe around the place again. The girls won on the Saturday, the U-15 boys won the following day and our U-16s boys are in a Munster final this Sunday. Our U-18s won out Munster last year so the game is going well in Ennis right now.
"We're going through a pretty rich period over the last three seasons, so the trick will be to ensure that we get a good return out of it at adult level.
"If there was only two or three players each year coming through it would be enough realistically. Some stop playing and some move away but we'd certainly hope that in the years to come will see an impact."