When Andy Robb joined the staff at Ardee Community School in September 2008, he assumed the role of rugby missionary…

A very clear sporting hierarchy had been established in the school; Gaelic Games, soccer and basketball firmly ruled the roost. So when Robb suggested that they assemble a side, you can understand the perplexed reactions within the staffroom. Despite being fully aware that the school lacked any rugby based infrastructure, Robb decided to press ahead and bought an oval ball.
The first day of the project came in the form of a call to arms. A mere five students from four different year groups unearthed themselves. A little alarmed, Robb tasked these individuals with rallying the troops. When the night of reckoning finally arrived however, it appeared that for season ahead Ardee CS would struggle to scrape a front row together! A keen rugby man, Robb admits that the lack of interest in the sport disheartened him. Not one to admit defeat, Robb resolved to ensure that rugby would soon have a say in the school’s sporting curriculum.

In his second year, Robb rolled up his sleeves and persisted with training sessions regardless of the numbers in attendance. Playing numbers aside, he also faced other difficulties. Firstly, there was no rugby pitch. Robb and his handful of players would make use of whatever patch of grass that was available while on occasion they availed of the gym, with crash-mats providing a softer landing in the tackle. Yet Robb’s sessions were always enjoyable. In time, 5 boys…6 boys… 8 boys… were togging out. A composite group of different ages and sizes, at least Ardee could now field a 10aside team!
With strategic timings for matches Robb soon found that the numbers continued to rise. “An eclectic bunch, I’m reminded of the 1992 movie The Might Ducks starring Emilio Estevez, where a group of misfit skaters are put together to form an ice hockey team. This is what presented itself to me; talented footballers, a couple of athletes and a few big lads who just wanted to bash people…” Positions were determined on the basis of their basic characteristics.  The bigger individuals inevitably found themselves in the pack, while those who could catch and run filed out in the backline. Robb recalls their first outing: “The lad playing out-half said he could pass, but never said he would. He literally ran around trying to dodge tackles. He ran forwards, backwards, sideways. We had no structure, no defensive line, no attacking formation. I’m fairly sure our centre fist passed the ball.” The game wasn’t a contest and Ardee CS lost heavily but the players had been converted. At school the next day all those involved shared their experience of a fully-fledged rugby game with their peers. A comprehensive defeat had never seemed so victorious. Ireland’s subsequent Grand Slam success only added to the fervor.

Despite the promise, Robb quickly realised that he could only do so much, furthermore facilities still lacked.  However, with Ardee RFC close at hand, the school was able to cope with the growing interest and development. Naturally the club stood to benefit from a new crop of players, yet their support was extraordinary.

For the first competitive season in the Junior Development Cup, Ardee RFC provided pitches, facilities and jerseys, while several coaches also made it their business to lend some support, namely Ronan O’Brien, Jimmy Reilly, Mick Lennon, Paddy McDonald and Declan Bingham. Meanwhile, the Community Rugby Officer (CRO) Liam Mullane was also taken by the project and his commitment proved instrumental in establishing the framework upon which rugby in Ardee CS has thrived. Mullane’s his work in the national schools also meant that pupils had already acquired basic skills and knowledge – a factor that bodes well for the future of rugby in the area. Mullane has retained a role within Ardee CS where he now leads training sessions.
2013/2014 proved to be a historic year for the school. Having never progressed beyond the second round of the Development Cup, Ardee CS found themselves in the final which automatically secured a place in the upper tier, the McMullen Cup. The adventure continued until the quarter-final stage where the Ardee challenge was undone by St. Fintan’s in a game that could have easily gone either way. Despite the vast improvements, ultimately a talented Tullow CS outfit showed the Ardee boys that they still had plenty of work to do as they were simply outclassed in the Development Cup Final.

Rather than yearn for instant glory and success, Ardee CS remain pragmatic in their rugby programme. They are an developing side and will continue to be. Yet the fruits of their endeavours are already becoming clear. Evolving from 5 aside to competitive girls and boys teams within 5 years has been nothing less than meteoric. Indeed some players have gone on to represent the school with distinction, with Cathal Bradley (formerly Northeast Development Squad) and Neil Reilly (Leinster and Ireland U18 Clubs, Leinster U20s) proving instrumental in raising the profile of the school on a regional scale.
One can only assume that we will be hearing more from Ardee Community School in years to come…