Club in Focus: Arklow RFC
April 11, 2023 3:04 pm Des Berry
Ah, the good old days.
Established in 1936, Arklow’s prominence in the Leinster Provincial Towns Cup came through in their four final appearances, losing in 1968 and 1974 and winning in 1985 and in 2004.
“In those days, there was an awful lot of employment around the town through NET (Nitrigin Eireann Teoranta) and Turlough Hill Power Station, bringing people in from the Universities,” shares Club President Chris Healy.
“We were easily able to field two senior teams, occasionally three and one year there were four teams playing out of Arklow in the late 70s and early 80s.
From 2004, the achievements of the last Towns Cup win coincided with a steady decline in fortunes, struggling to maintain the high standards set in previous decades.
The economic recession didn’t exactly make it any easier as businesses folded like deck chairs and jobs were lost.
The dwindling playing numbers meant Arklow struggled to field a senior team, a byproduct of failing to install a viable youths section.
“We were blinded by the success of our senior team and placed no importance on our underage structures. No one was looking to the future,” says Chris.
“It was dire at one stage. We even had a meeting to consider pulling our senior team from competition because players weren’t showing up.
“In fact, it was the greater involvement of women that got the club going again, their organisational skills had a huge impact as did the growth of rugby in Leinster due to the European success.”
The limited top-down approach has been shelved in favour of building from the ground up.
“We feel the club took their eye off the ball for far too long, in terms of developing youths rugby,” says Robert Kelly, the club’s Public Relations Officer.
“In the last five or six years, we have regrouped and re-energised the youths system in the club, taking kids right up the age grades.
“There are some green shoots starting to appear.”
“We have close to 120 at minis and we have ten youth teams in the club between the boys and girls right up to U18s. That is progress.”
At the start of the season, hooker Ava Kavanagh and number eight Jane Neill and flanker Prudence Issac – she has since moved to All-Ireland League club Wicklow – were pillars of the Leinster U18 Girls in their unbeaten run to the Interprovincial championship.
It is easy to pick out the huge frame of Joshua Burke playing at number eight for South-East in the Shane Horgan Cup in recent months.
“We are very proud of all the girls and the boys that come through the club and it is nice to see some of them play at a higher level,” says Robert.
“It puts us in the spotlight and it shows other kids that there is a pathway through Arklow to play for the South-East or Leinster or Ireland.”
That was the exact route taken by Jane Neill last year, culminating in playing number eight for Ireland at the U18 Six Nations Festival at Easter.
“If you are good enough, you will be spotted, and Barney Hynes in the club can nominate players to compete for a place in the South-East squad. Everyone knows there is a clear, defined pathway there for our boys and girls.”
The success of Leinster and Irish rugby in recent years has led to an increase in numbers on the ground, even extending out to non-traditional schools.
“In addition, our players go to school locally and Arklow CBS qualified for the Anne McInerney Development Cup final last year, playing in Energia Park.
“That was a huge thing for the club as all but one of those players played with us,” stresses Robert.
“In fact, we had four of our U18s Sean McCarthy, Roan Freehil, Padraic Bermingham and Eoin Byrne, who also played for Arklow CBS, come through into senior rugby this year.
“This is progress, a sign of better times ahead. We just have to work hard to make sure there are three or four coming into senior rugby every year.
“We have started a conveyor belt that, hopefully, will keep bringing players through our system. If we can produce enough, we will get back to where we want to be.”
The heart of the senior team has been kept beating by the commitment of a small number of loyal locals, determined to do all in their power to keep the coastal town’s rugby sheep afloat.
“In fairness, there are lads in their 40s playing just to keep the team alive. It is a great credit to Richard Murphy and Anthony O’Donnell that they show up every week for us. But, it can’t go on forever.
“The plan is to keep the youth development programme going for all the boys and girls, building them up, putting the work in so that they will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Sean, Roan, Padraic and Eoin.
“We know we are on our knees at the moment as a senior club. But, the green shoots are there and you don’t have to look too hard to see them.”
There is an emphasis on lifting up all areas of the club and there is no better time to embrace the critical importance of women’s rugby to the lifeblood of Leinster’s clubs.
The Arklow Amazons, the senior Women’s team, currently play in the Leinster League and they have been bolstered this season by the graduation of Jane (Neill), Lara Prestage and Grainne Flynn from the U18s.
Arklow and Gorey rugby clubs have a good deal in common in terms of their numbers and are inclined to share playing resources if the need arises, a common sense attitude based around what’s best for their players.
They combined to make up the Argo squad for the Girls U16s in 2021, a squad still operating in the U18s Leinster League this season due to light numbers at both clubs. It doesn’t end there.
“Last season, we invited Sunday’s Well’s mixed ability team to play our Senior men’s team in ‘a match.’ It sowed the seeds for us to try to replicate what they were doing,” adds Robert.
“With this in mind, we have formed a mixed-ability team this season, the Arklow Red Kites and it has been going really well.
“A lot of people put a lot of work and time in behind the scenes to bring it together. The numbers are growing and there are plans to play in blitzes.”
A struggling club has been revitalised by the energy and commitment of its members for its’ players, past, present and future.
Long may it continue.