Pirates aim to launch raid in years to come
Underage groundwork is ready to pay off in spades as talent pours from Cork club Cobh Pirates once more, writes Declan Rooney
Sometimes first impressions can be deceiving, and anyone who looks at the Munster J1 standings right now would say Cobh Pirates are on a downward spiral. That couldn't be further from the truth, though, as the Cork club primes itself to enjoy the harvest of a decade of hard work.
The hours of dedication of volunteers like Fiona Perryman and Eithne O'Connell have fuelled the club's underage game and the fact that they are in the top division of Munster junior rugby is testament to their determination to succeed. This season they have yet to win a game but as the first graduates of their revamped underage system stepped forward this year, it is no surprise to see their inexperience working against them in the hard-nosed Division 1.
But according to former club president, and current PRO and fixtures secretary, Kieran McKeown, the good times are not too far away again for the Pirates.
"The J1 table is not too pleasant at the moment, but we honestly think we will get really strong in the next four or five years," says McKeown.
"We are on the wrong end of a cycle now. We have a very young team and we lost a good few players to retirement at the same time. I'd say the average age of our junior team is in its early 20s, which is very young.
"We could well be relegated at junior level, we are running out of games, but maybe that would be the ideal place for us to develop the young lads. Going down is not what we want, but it wouldn't be the worst thing for us at all.
struggled "In the late '90s and '00s we were fairly successful and we regularly finished in the top four of five in the league. We won the Munster Junior Cup in 2006. We had a strong team and good players, but we took the eye off the ball when it came to underage. Once that team retired we struggled."
After that historic cup win over Cork Con, a few years of neglect came back to haunt Cobh and they had to begin the rebuilding process. Starting with that year's mini players they club began to introduce some quality coaching, which has started to produce quality rugby players.
"About ten years back we sat down as a group and said we needed to put some work in again. We have a thriving underage section now, nearly 200 minis between the age of 6 and 12. Our four youths teams are doing pretty well in the last couple of years.
"We like to think we are family-focused club, with a lot of ex-players now back coaching at kids level and serving on committees. We are well served by folks with the club at heart.
"We are hitting our targets, but this year is the first year we are bringing those lads through. Once we have a few years of that progression I think we'll be in good shape.
"Our U-16s and U-18s have both qualified for Phase 2 of the Pan Munster. After Christmas they will be competing at the highest level at provincial level. That's a big thing for us to see that regeneration producing results."
Founded in 1890, there is a rich history of rugby being played in Cobh, and since 1960 The Paddocks has been their home, with many of their players hailing from the Great Island and Carrigtwohill areas.
And they have an impressive set-up for a junior club, with their own fully-paid-off nine-acre site featuring two full playing pitches as well as an adult and mini training pitch.
For the start of the 2016 season the club installed a new floodlight system and improved conditions for spectators, while plans are afoot to develop a new dressing room complex in the coming seasons.
According to McKeown, the club is well supported by the business community of Cobh and a loyal local community, while their main sponsor Laya Healthcare are a massive assistance. And Laya's forward thinking to fund baseline testing for all of the club's players over 16 years old is something that Cobh Pirates are particularly proud of.
"Laya Healthcare, they are very good to us. We are in year six of that deal and we are delighted with it. Guys like Kevin Kent and John McCall have been a dream to deal with," says McKeown.
"Last season they supported a new concussion awareness programme. It was rolled out in Leinster, but we were the only club in Munster that got it, thanks to Laya.
"All of our players from U-16s upwards were screened at Laya's expense. A third-party company came in and did the baseline testing for all the players. That was over 130 players tested altogether. Those tests will be repeated again too, but it shows what sort of a sponsor Laya are.
"As the season went on we saw the value of the testing, especially for one player who had a concussion problem. His doctors were delighted to have that results to look at."
So whatever happens the junior team this season, Cobh Pirates won't panic. A win at home to Galbally when the league resumes could well be a turning point for this team, but wherever they ply their trade next season, the Pirates will be armed and dangerous.