The definition of success is different for every Junior club.

Some are all about being deeply embedded in the local community. Some want to maintain their status as a small social club, a place where friends gather.

Others want it all. They want to be at the heart of the community and to climb the ladders that are the various Leagues all the way to the All-Ireland League.

Tullow is one of those clubs that is always reaching for the stars from the relatively humble playing ground of Division 1B of the Leinster Junior League.

“The club must follow the team. That is the view in Tullow,” says Director of Rugby Tom Nolan.

“We would love to progress onto the AIL. We have good young players at the club and good people around them.”

Tom doesn’t have to look too far to find the recipe for this type of success.

“Enniscorthy has a wonderful model there, building from within. Financially, it is the only sustainable model to get to the AIL in a rural club.”

Part of the journey has to be the progress in the quality of the facilities available.

An artificial pitch, first suggested by Sean O’Brien and Tom, was seen as a sign of moving with the times.

Tullow RFC President Pat Byrne, left, presents Leinster contact skills coach Sean O’Brien with a plaque during the Leinster rugby open training session at Tullow RFC in Carlow in November 2022. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

In May 2019, Tullow started the €500,000 project by getting it passed at an Annual General Meeting before securing planning permission and finance from a Leader grant, a rural development designed to stimulate economic activity, valued at 75% of the total cost.

A 3G Project Team of Noel Nolan, Paddy Browne, Pat Byrne, Eddie Horkan, Ger O’Brien, Madeline Ryan and Tom got to work on making the dream a reality.

The Project required that the Leader grant application, the Planning application and the Loan application had to be pursued and guaranteed. They were.

“Sean played a big part by driving it on and assuring any of the doubters in the club that it was the right thing to do for Tullow,” states Tom.

“He has proved to be correct. The benefits are there to be seen. Training is never cancelled. The numbers at under-age have swollen.”

Like everyone else, Tullow had to overcome the adversity of the pandemic at a time when they had just broken ground on the new 3G pitch.

“It happened the week of lockdown. We started on the Tuesday of that week and we had to remove all the machinery from the site on Thursday, when the government announcement came. All that was left was a big hole running down the middle of the pitch.

“It was a big disappointment. But, we had to accept it for the good of all,” he says.

“We got the go-ahead when construction opened back up. It didn’t take us long to complete the work. It probably helped that there was no one else out in the club at the time, other than those directly involved in the project.

“Probably, the biggest body-blow during it came when our club stalwart Ger O’Brien passed away from Covid-related illness. He was instrumental in so much of what was going on in the club.”

As time moved on and the country opened up again, the value of the new pitch was clear to see.

“We are into the second season of it being used. It is only now we see the full value of it. It has come into its own,” Tom says.

“Previously, we were spending so much money on repairing the grass pitches, it was a joke. It was no fault of the contractors, or anyone else. It was simply footfall.

“The artificial surface has led to increased numbers into the club and it has definitely increased the number of smiles from ‘mammies’ going out the gate because the car is not destroyed with muck and the kids are not covered head-to-toe in it.

“On Sunday mornings, the numbers at minis have grown. The last time I was down, there were 230 little heads running around from ages six-to-12.

“They come into us from Baltinglass, Rathvilly, Fenagh, down towards the Fighting Cocks area, down to the borders of Wexford and Wicklow and, of course, Tullow.

“It is almost a case of never turning out the lights. The pitch is constantly in use through the various teams in the club and the schools in the area, both primary and secondary, coming out to play on it.

“In total, we reach out to about 39 schools through the Leinster programme, some of which are very small rural places. There could be as few as 30 in some of them.”

The drive to improve didn’t end on the pitch. In September, a revamp of the gymnasium was completed.

“It included construction work on the rooms, clearing them out, and a total refurbishment of all machines, bringing them up to date. That has been well-received by the players.

“It is also offered as a facility to non-playing members, who pay €100 for access to the gym and the walking track. That’s not too bad a deal.”

This desire to attract people to the club is a reflection of the community as a whole.

“The club is getting its buzz back. Covid changed the culture of general life around the town. People got used to staying at home. The bars were empty. It has started to turn around. I feel it is coming back.

“We had a local derby against Carlow last month. There was a great crowd there and a great atmosphere at Oak Park. We are lucky in the League this year. We have Wicklow, Athy and Carlow in 1B. Those local rivalries always generate interest.”

Of course, Sean O’Brien has long been held up as Tullow’s main man. The Ireland and British & Irish Lions flanker’s application to rejoin his old club was dashed for this season.

“It was a disappointment for us all in Tullow, a disappointment for Sean too,” adds Tom.

“It would have been a real crowd-pleaser here and it would have brought closure to his career.  The rules are the rules. They are there for the best intentions of all.

“We went through the process and the viewpoint was taken by the administrators of the game that it wasn’t appropriate for Sean to play Junior rugby. It wasn’t anything personal. We move on.

“He still has a big role to play at the club and we still haven’t given up the hope that he will wear the jersey again.”

O’Brien’s pioneering career has opened the door for the likes of Lansdowne prop Adam Deay, Buccaneers and Connacht’s front row forward Charlie Ward and talented Old Belvedere, Leinster and Ireland out-half Dannah O’Brien.

“It is very important we have these players coming through the club. It gives the kids someone to look up to, to show them it can be done. For example, Dannah was down coaching the U14 girls recently.”

It is this commitment to give back that drives Tullow forward.