KnockOn.ie editor Rob Murphy begins a series of articles on clubs facing the possibility of dropping down a division this season and the harsh realities of the other side of rugby. While some clubs thrive others must struggle. To start with, he looks at a club close to many people’s hearts. Connemara who face the prospect of the biggest drop of all, senior to junior.
Connemara’s Number is Up
In October of last season I visited Monastery Field, to watch the Connemara Blacks, in action. An annual trek to my favourite rugby venue on the planet. The Peter Bracken revolution was in full swing, the turnaround had been phenomenal.
Main Caption: Action from Connemara’s defeat to Sligo in mid January. Pic: Rory Raftery Sligo RFC.
They had gone from a young side that had lost all 14 games the previous year (there was no relegation that season) to a side that had won two from their first three with a couple of bonus points thrown in and were second in the table.
The players soon pilled in and I got chatting to the Keoghs. Alan, Kevin and Dave. The trio linking the golden generation with the present day. Dave, the oldest still at scrum half, Kevin toiling away in the second row and Alan as dangerous as ever from full back.
Caption: Action from the victory over Ards in October 2011, Dave Keogh breaks free for a try with Kevin Keogh on his right shoulder. Pic: Irene King, Connemara RFC
Being the overly positive sports journalist that I am, I couldn’t help but wax lyrically to them about the incredible start to the season they had produced, the good times were returning I declared, the Bracken revolution was in full swing, who knows maybe they could challenge for a top two place?
The lads had seen and heard that guff before. Politely, they didn’t completely rebuke me but at the same time they slammed on my brakes and slapped a little sense on the table.
“Promotion?, will you give over.”
That was the gist of it.
“But 10 points from the first three games,” I continued foolishly, “you’re scoring tries for fun, Benny Bester is sharp at 13, Richie Byrne is a great find at openside, you have Emmet Ferron at tighthead, you three still putting the shoulder to wheel and if….”
The didn’t have to say much to halt me. The smiles said it all. A sort of, “we love the enthusiasm and we’re grateful for it, but for the love of God, shut up.”
They did say a bit more though and the gist of it was
- Fielding a second team was a chore, it always has been even if the heady early days of AIL rugby.
- The veterans were no longer there to be pulled from the cellar when times were rough.
- Sustaining a promotion push required squad depth, when you’re club as isolated as Connemara and if you expect a guy to make the four hour round trips from Dublin for training he’ll expect you to start him for the first team. How do you build a squad in that environment?
Caption: Connemara are the only club in the country with live radio commentary for every game thanks to the local community radio station. Pic: Irene King.
They won four of the next six before the inevitable drain on resources and lack of depth caught up in the spring leaving them in mid table but having made huge progress.
One year on and I stood behind the railings on the dugout side last Saturday week, Sligo were the visitors, 52 minutes were on the clock, the score was 6-19 and the visiting scrum was laying waste to the home team.
They couldn’t keep Peter Bracken this season, his immense enthusiasm and direction is certainly missed
Kevin Ward is one of the acting coaches, Gerry King is the can-do club man keeping track of subs, international props wouldn’t have budged those two in their day on this field.
Days come and days go.
The black jersey is taken off washed and eventually finds it’s way onto someone else’s shoulder.
Back to the 52 minute. Kevin Keogh was walking off the field, listing to one side holding his shoulder. He’s 33 years of age, What is he trying to prove? Who is he proving it to?
Hard questions for us to answer. We’re bloody impressed with his commitment but who’d blame him if he called it a day.
There were days when this ground would have held 400 to 600 people for average league games. Twice that many on the big days. Junior Cup semi finals in the 90s had nearly a 1,000 in attendance.
Caption: Action from Connemara’s win in Rainey back in January 2012.
If you want at least some insight into why Kevin bothers? Take a listen to his brother’s thoughts after the game.
AUDIO: Dave Keogh post match
Passion and dejection. The weight of a club on his shoulders. His and 20 others.
The faces of that squad as they walked up the hill after this four try defeat told a tale, everyone of them hurting. Well beaten, they knew this relegation could be on their watch after 12 years.
No one wants that.
They’ll put this on themselves, they’ll hold their hands up and say, ‘this is on our watch’ and let them, we have no right to stop them but let no one outside of that squad put it on their shoulders. No one. They’re the last people who should be blamed.
There were moments on that Saturday when you had hope and felt nostalgic at the same time. Like when Dave found Alan with a deft pass that flummoxed the defense. The full back took a line coming from off the radar and no one saw it.
Flashes but without foundation and no foothold to build, they went on to lose in Instonians last weekend 33-17, fighting back in the second half but still falling short. It’s not all over yet but 0 points from 11 games tells a tale.
It bloody hurts to see them like this. As a journalist I should be dispassionate but I’m a sports journalist for a reason and it’s not my love for numbers (or my spelling and grammar for that matter.)
They’re a club that means a lot to almost every rugby person in Connacht, we’re all collectively proud of them.
Caption: Supporters after the victory over Sunday’s Well in Musgrave Park last season. Pic: Irene King
We love to see our teams beat them too, Ballinrobe’s Junior Cup semi final win there in 1990 will live forever in my memory.
Me, nine years of age watching our pack get the better of them. That was brilliant, even then, before all the cups and the leagues and the Lansdowne Road heroics, winning out there was bloody difficult
And now this.
And nothing that can be done.
You want to blame the Connacht branch for not waking up to the importance of this rugby outpost and developing a strategy long before now.
You want to blame the town of Clifden for not pilling more money into the club and supporting them in their latest hour of need.
You want to blame players young and old for drifting away from the club to play elsewhere or to retire.
You want to blame Fianna Fail and the bankers for tangling us all up in debt and forcing a generation to scramble across the country and around the world to keep the coppers flowing in.
But blaming is the easy way out. I’m as much to blame as anyone else. My own club need some help and I haven’t been able to give it. I’m too busy with work I tell myself, too busy building my own business.
So how can I point fingers?
Every year the first xv of around 20 clubs out of the 220 on this island are relegated. It varies depending on league structures but some team has to fill each gap.
Nothing can be done about that fact, cycles come and go and numbers come up.
Connemara have dodged the draft all to often but not this time it seems.
Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.