Rural club encouraged by bigger numbers at underage
Club focus: Estuary RFC
West Limerick outfit seeing their good work coming up trumps, writes Daragh Small
When the Ireland U-20s became the first Irish men's team to beat New Zealand at the World Rugby Junior Championships in June 2016, Estuary RFC were proudly represented from the front-line.
Leinster prop Andrew Porter wore the No 1 jersey that day, with Ulster hooker Adam McBurney alongside him and ex-Munster academy youngster Ben Betts at tighthead prop.
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Now 23, Betts is playing his rugby at Nottingham in the English Championship. He is on loan from Ealing Trailfinders for the season after a stint with Leicester Tigers in the Premiership where he was also loaned out to a couple of clubs.
But it all began at Estuary RFC where he was spotted by an eagle-eyed Young Munster scout following a minis game between the two sides.
"Ben started with us and he did Community Games and everything," says Estuary RFC club president Tom Flavin. "He was playing one day and I'll never forget the phone call. Young Munster had a scout there and he was on to Ben's mother that evening.
"It would have been his first season with us. It was his size and his strength that made them take notice. Ben was a big lad. He was wearing size 13 or 14 boots and he wasn't even a teenager yet.
"Myself and Joe Hoyne went over to Manchester to watch him play in the World Cup. They got to the final that year. It was unbelievable to see him playing in that company. We were delighted and shocked to see someone from here do that."
When Betts made his way in from Co Limerick to the city, where he hooked up with Young Munster, it set in motion a chain of events.
The young tighthead played for Munster at youth, U-19 and U-20 level while he represented Ireland at U-18 clubs and U-19 before helping the U-20s to their sensational 33-24 win over the Baby Blacks in Manchester.
He is the perfect example of what clubs like Estuary RFC plan to do with the young talent that comes into the club with a dream to one day go on and play the game professionally.
The rural west Limerick outfit were founded in 2005 and account for the parishes of Glin, Loughill, Ballyhahill, Foynes, Askeaton and Shanagolden.
But after a few years when they tried to compete at youths level a lack of numbers forced them to link up with Newcastle West from U-13 onwards.
Newcastle West is 81 years older and allows the youngsters from Estuary an opportunity to further their claims before they move into the junior rugby ranks.
But it's crucial the platform is there in the first place and players like Betts would never have been noticed were it not for the work of people like Flavin.
Estuary RFC finally took off just as Munster and Irish rugby came to the forefront of Irish sport. The demand became so much that locals decided to run a rugby summer camp where more than 70 children turned up, and that was the basis for the club.
"Munster and Ireland were flying it and we approached the Community Council in Shanagolden and they allowed us to play in the community field," says Flavin.
"A lot of Ballyhahill, St Senan's and Glin were playing against each other and training against each other in so many different sports.
"But Joe Hoyne and a few others got together with Terence McSweeney. At the end of the training the kids wanted to know was there any chance of setting up a rugby club.
"We looked into it and contacted the Munster Branch. It all kicked off from there."
Music was the main attraction in the Flavin household, Tom Flavin played the flute and whistle, but there was a sporting presence too and his sister Triona went on to play Gaelic football for Limerick.
Flavin is a Ballyhahill native. He went to secondary school in Tarbert Comprehensive over the border in Co Kerry and that is where his real interest in rugby began. He operated in the second-row with the school team for a couple of years but didn't play the game after that.
"We used to always watch rugby at home all the time," he recalls. "Fred Cogley, I always remember him reporting on the matches and watching the Five Nations and Six Nations on television when Ireland were playing. I was a Munster fan as well. We went to the matches in the old Thomond Park and would have gone to a couple of games in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale too."
But back then there was no underage rugby in the direct vicinity, until the early-2000s when Estuary RFC finally got going.
Despite the recent upsurge in hurling in the county, that sport doesn't have a major footprint in the area either. And there were a few raised eyebrows when the subject of rugby was first brought up.
"At the time there was opposition from the GAA against us setting up," adds Flavin.
"It was GAA country, what the hell did we think we were doing setting up a rugby club back there. But when we finished our first season and some of the lads that were playing rugby went back playing GAA, the lads in the GAA looked and went: 'Jeepers, we can tell what lads have been playing rugby and the lads that haven't been playing any sport'. It is like everything, once they are out playing sports they are not at home playing video games or on phones or causing trouble."
And Estuary RFC now work in unison with the local GAA and soccer clubs with shared dressing-rooms among other things at Captain Tim Madigan Park in the Shanagolden Sportsfield.