Thurles RFC: Keeping the game alive in the home of hurling in Tipperary
It’s an uphill battle but Daragh Small hears there’s no shortage of dedication in Thurles
Based in the hurling stronghold of Tipperary, Thurles RFC have built a solid platform and continue to thrive on the rugby scene as they approach their centenary.
Donal Flannery is the current president and the Nenagh native will endeavour to take them through some of the most difficult times in the club's history.
Since the recession hit, rural clubs have struggled with players leaving for the cities where education and job opportunities are a major draw.
However, with the help of the Munster Branch and the IRFU, Thurles will look to reach their 100th birthday in 2024 in a better place on and off the field.
For now they are doing well in the face of adversity. Hurling is number one in Tipperary but rugby is a big player in Thurles too.
"We are in the heartland of hurling and that's always going to be the case. A young fella in primary school, he would be let in without the school bag but he wouldn't be let in without the hurley every day," said Flannery.
"That's just as it is. But we do draw from a radius of about 40 miles away. We do have a strong tradition of families coming through and playing third and fourth generation, which is marvellous.
"We have players and teams that are togging out at every age level. We have gone back and redeveloped a three-year programme for identification and merit skills along the way.
"We are very happy with that. That has now come into being. We have co-operation with the Munster Branch on that.
"We have a very good club coach, John Lillis. He has come back to start helping us out with the juniors as well. Our commitment on the pitch is very strong, and we have excellent coaches. We have a very strong and vibrant culture within that.
"We are looking forward to the celebration of the centenary. We haven't started into planning events for that yet, we need to get over this transitionary period first."
Junior clubs always dream of growing their own talent in order to provide a provincial team with the next big star, to inspire more young players to take up the game.
It's the ideal endless cycle and Thurles have done their bit for the IRFU, with some indigenous talent making the grade across various age-groups in the recent past.
"We had a guy there, Teddy Skehan, he went through and ended up playing with Young Munster a couple of years ago and made it onto the club team of the year, playing with Ireland in the club internationals. And he was selected as the club player of the year," said Flannery.
"We have another guy, JP Cooney, who was with Connacht. You send players to a centralised process now, nominate guys to go in. They are evaluated then."
But ultimately the club need to make the books balance too and that has been very testing.
Various fundraising initiatives have kicked into gear and the community have rowed together in a bid to keep the club aimed in the right direction.
"We are very good at the moment on the playing side. We are not so good on the non-playing side. We are going through a bit of financial difficulty," said Flannery.
"Everything has changed. Your main source of income a few years ago would have been your bar and discos as such. The outgoings have hugely increased. The bottom line is you are running at about 30pc loss per year, and the sources for getting sponsorship is increasingly difficult. If it continues as it is the junior clubs will continue to struggle over the next few years.
"The volunteerism side of it is more or less gone. That's not the way it should be. It's all becoming a bit too much for people in that it's taking up around two hours a day minimum.
"I devote over two days per week to the whole structure. But fundamentally you are meeting every week just to fundraise."
They remain on the back foot due to their location but Flannery is determined that he won't let that be a cause for concern during his tenure.
"We will try absolutely everything. Clubs in the Dublin area have been able to increase their membership to cover their outgoings. Where we are, you simple don't have that opportunity," said Flannery.
"There has been a huge recession and people are finding that hard. The day-to-day struggle and just providing for families. Membership is way down the list for people.
"We have tried for cash-raising street collections, to lip sync, we are going to try a Boston Tea Party coming up, we have a Lotto. But you are going back to a diminishing well all of the time.
"You are going back to the same spectrum. If it continues as it is you will have nobody volunteering in the club for coaching or committees.
"This year we are applying for a sports capital grant. We need to upgrade the premises and facilities themselves. We have two ladies teams playing but we don't have ladies facilities. We don't have showers or changing areas for them."
After JP Cooney went on to claim a PRO12 title with Connacht in 2016, it inspired a new generation of youngster to stake a claim for spot in their local club. The difficulty with numbers remains but Flannery hopes they can find quality over quantity and keep rugby in Thurles going strong.
Having been founded in 1924 the club is at a crossroads but there is a massive willingness to succeed.
"Yet on the playing side, we are in a region here in east Munster we are one of only two clubs at the moment who are fielding from U-7 all the way up to J1," said Flannery.
"Trying to get out a second team, get an U-20 team out is extremely challenging. But we will keep fighting."