Sunday 25 August 2019

Stepping forward to join the big guns after long battle

Club focus: Clonmel RFC

Clonmel local Pat O'Connor took the reins as head coach a couple of years ago. Stock photo
Clonmel local Pat O'Connor took the reins as head coach a couple of years ago. Stock photo

Daragh Small

Clonmel Rugby Club will play senior rugby for the first time in their 127-year history in the 2019-'20 season.

It's an extraordinary achievement for a club that has gradually come to prominence in recent years and become a force on the Munster junior scene.

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Former Ireland and Munster back-row Denis Leamy brought his high standards with him when he joined up, as he helped to begin a revolution just under a decade ago.

Clonmel local Pat O'Connor took the reins as head coach a couple of years ago and Dylan Cadogan's penalty sent them into the big time with a 15-12 victory over Seapoint away from home in Kilbogget Park last Saturday.

"We beat Seapoint in the play-off and it was an unbelievable success for the club after all these years," says Clonmel club president Bob Campion.

"We achieved reasonable success in the last five years, because this is the fourth time in five years that we have won the Munster Junior League. But on each of those occasions we did not get through the play-offs, except for this time."

Clonmel finished second after three games in the round-robin series. They won 31-21 at home to Connemara, lost heavily 46-5 away to Enniscorthy and secured a priceless 28-21 win at Instonians.

That victory at Shaw's Bridge ensured their place in the play-offs and the rest is history, with an outstanding win over a side which ended up ninth in Division 2C but couldn't avoid the drop.

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"We probably made it a little bit difficult for ourselves because we got beaten by Enniscorthy. We defeated Connemara and Instonians either side of that, and then we had to go to the play-offs to play Seapoint away from home.

"They were very breezy conditions. It was 12-12 at half-time, we were playing against the wind. There was no score in the second half then until we finally got a penalty with the last kick of the game.

"It was very far out, in and around the Seapoint 10-metre line, on the angle. But our kicker and scrum-half, Dylan Cadogan, took it on and we won the game by three points. He nailed it perfectly with a brilliant kick."

It was a release of years of pain and suffering, and relief that Clonmel had finally made it to Division 2C of the All-Ireland League.

"There were joyous celebrations all around from our fellas," adds Campion. "We were back in Clonmel on Saturday night for hours and the old committee members in the club, you could really see it with them. They were very emotional for the entire evening after the win because they knew history had been made.

Young

"We had a reasonably young team. Our expectation at the start of the season was that we would probably finish up in mid-table. But we got up a head of steam as the season went on and before we knew it we had a game against Bandon to win the league.

"We only had one loss in the league all season. And there were five or six new guys who stepped up to the mark for us after retirements last year. Everyone within the club knew it was a big day for the club.

"We are embracing having AIL rugby to come now next season. We have a very good underage and junior section, and if we can hold ourselves for a season or two in the All-Ireland League, we have a lot of good players coming through.

"We would give it a few years at senior and hopefully go on from there. Our neighbouring club Cashel seems to be thriving, and maybe we could go on from where we are now and do that too."

Campion's 21-year-old son Niall was part of the team that secured promotion, having finished second to Enniscorthy in the round-robin.

Campion is a Kilkenny native, originally from Urlingford, who relocated to Clonmel over 30 years ago.

Kilkenny isn't a traditional rugby hotbed, with Kilkenny City the only club there, but it didn't prevent Campion from getting involved with his new local rugby team.

"I got into the rugby through a few friends of mine," he says. "I was always involved more on the administrative side of the club. I took my turn to be president at the right time. I couldn't have foreseen the success we were going to have."

Campion did play second-row for the Clonmel seconds team on a few occasions, but he was always more prevalent on the committee side of things. He never thought he would be at the helm when the club achieved its greatest ever success.

"I joined the committee about 15 years ago. I was treasurer for eight years and on the general committee for two or three years as well," he says.

"It is a huge personal achievement for me. We thought this was never going to happen, but the amount of goodwill, even since we won.

"It is being to conveyed to us by businesses in the town, the clubs in Tipperary, Munster and elsewhere, the amount of congratulations we have got on Facebook and Twitter is astonishing.

"And it is an unbelievable feeling for myself to be president of such a fine club in a town like Clonmel. The town is a town of 20,000 people. We should be able to make a go of the rigours of travel and playing in senior leagues."

Clonmel RFC play their rugby at Ard Gaoithe, on the Cashel Road as you leave Clonmel, looking across the town.

Their facilities have improved greatly in recent years, and now they have three full-size pitches, small all-weather pitches, six dressing rooms, a clubhouse and a stand which they built about eight years ago.

"We feel that we can do well in the senior rugby ranks," says Campion. "We are centrally located for travel. We would have to travel to play three northern teams.

"Three-and-a-half hours would take us to anywhere we would need to go in the country and most of our travelling would be done within two hours of Clonmel anyway.

"We are 13 miles from the motorway in Cahir, Co Tipperary. We would be able to get to most places better than teams in the north or south because of our location. That's half the battle."

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