Not many primary schoolchildren have the opportunity to be coached by a current international rugby player but that is exactly what seven primary schools in the Portarlington area have experienced…

Club Community Rugby Officer (CCRO) for Portarlington R.F.C. Aleksander Mijahlovic is preparing to make his international comeback for Serbia next month after a lengthy hiatus.

Although by no means are Serbia a rugby superpower, international rugby is international rugby regardless and the game of rugby in the Portarlington area can surely only benefit from the experience of a man who has represented his country while also playing professionally in England. If the success of the mini’s and women’s programs in the club are anything to go on, then rugby is indeed benefitting from Mijahlovic’s experience.

This year Portarlington R.F.C has seen an invasion of children looking to experience the game for the first time with sixty new arrivals in the minis’ age groups alone. Consider also that Portarlington brought 286 to the Leinster, Clermont match in the Aviva and it is clear that rugby is somewhat booming in the Laois town. Aleksander concurs.

‘We’ve had a massive influx of players over the last twelve months. Our minis and youths sections have seriously boomed. It just shows you for such a small place, what sort of level of interest for rugby is here.’ These high levels of interest are reflected by the establishment of a rugby side in Monasterevin secondary school for the first time.

This new found enthusiasm is not merely confined to one side of the gender divide either with Portarlington R.F.C fielding three new women’s sides for the first time this year. Aleksander puts this improvement down to a lot of unsung work. ‘There’s a huge level of enthusiasm with the people in the club, a lot of volunteers and a lot of people putting in a lot of effort. They’re all working really hard not to leave anybody stuck. Things like coaches setting up extra training sessions on their own initiative.’

The improved level and increased regularity of coaching can only have a positive impact on the level of rugby been seen and the Serbian native is quick to highlight the positive developments in this regard. ‘Absolutely the coaching standard has improved, the regular meetings of coaches trying to get everybody to sing off the same sheet have helped a lot. A lot of coaches have put in a lot of effort. Portarlington has two or three coaches for each age grade now.’

The large number of coaches are certainly needed with Portarlington boasting over 250 youths and minis members. The influx of new members has presented its own problems though, particularly regarding space. To cope with the extra demand another pitch had to be procured for Saturday mornings. Hardly a catastrophic turn of events but a logistical headache nonetheless. According to Aleksander, this boom in attendance would not have been possible had it not been for the general increased profile the sport has enjoyed in the province and the improvement in standards bought by quality filtering down from higher levels.

‘There’s no two ways about it. Attitudes to rugby are changing an awful lot. The difference from ten years ago. If you’d tried to fill the Aviva at provincial level, people would have laughed at you. If you look at the lower levels now, the level that is been filtered down. The knowledge and understanding of the game are a lot higher than they were. It all filters through, the more coaching the guys get, the more players that are coming back from playing at a higher level. They then go back to the lower level clubs and raise the bar.’

The bar appears to be rising ever higher and Aleksander is confident that the uniqueness of the CCRO programme will continue this upward trend. ‘I can tell you the majority of big rugby clubs in England wouldn’t have anywhere near the level of involvement in grass roots rugby and community that Leinster has. The availability of the CCROs and Community Rugby Officers(CRO)s is only going to push the levels higher.’

Lofty ambitions indeed.