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'This is something to be grasped around the world, it could be a massive success'

Irishman Declan Bannon coached the Eden Lizards to a national under 85kg rugby title in New Zealand.

Declan Bannon with World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.
Declan Bannon with World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.

A PHOTO WITH World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry is one of the many mementos Irishman Declan Bannon will carry forward from a very special day at Eden Park in Auckland last weekend.

31-year-old Bannon is the head coach of the Eden Lizards, who won the first-ever New Zealand Barbarians Under 85kg Club Cup at the famous Kiwi stadium on what was a huge day for the weight-restricted grade of rugby.

It’s rugby as you know it, so all the same 15-a-side laws, but players can only weigh a maximum of 85 kilogrammes.

Henry, who led the All Blacks to their 2011 World Cup success, is an ambassador for 85s and has been a big driver in New Zealand Rugby [NZR]‘s efforts to grow this grade as they look to keep people in the game and draw new players into the sport.

“He’s been pushing this for four or five years, driving it with New Zealand Rugby and without him, I don’t think it happens,” says Bannon

“After the game, he came over and spoke to a few of us, congratulated us, and it meant so much to a lot of people.”

Bannon’s Eden Lizards are now the national champions and he laughs as he says it has been “a hell of a week” celebrating.

There is further Irish influence in the set-up with Donegal men Sean and Colm McNicholl playing for the team and Navan man Richie Reilly a player/assistant coach. 

Source: All Blacks/YouTube

Bannon started playing rugby with Young Munster in Limerick at the age of seven and went on to be coached by Mike Prendergast at senior level before later playing with Bruff. Bannon first moved to New Zealand in 2015, when a friend from Ireland, David Toomey, told him he had to try 85s.

He was thrilled by the pace of the game – “it’s Test level quick at times, 1.5 to 2-second rucks” – and not having to deal with much bigger men every weekend.

Bannon subsequently returned to Ireland for a season playing AIL rugby at out-half for Navan, who were coached by Alan Kingsley – a strong influence on Bannon’s own coaching.

He returned to New Zealand for work in 2017 and with his body struggling due to injuries, Bannon began moving into coaching with the Lizards, eventually guiding them to last weekend’s 27-24 success over the Auckland University Squids live on Sky Sport NZ.

“To play in Eden Park is like the holy grail in New Zealand,” he says. “It was amazing for the guys to get out there and the way they played was absolutely incredible.”

85s has been growing in popularity in New Zealand, pushed by the union based on their research into why people have been increasingly falling out of the game.

Almost 130 clubs had signed up for the national competition this year before Covid-19 but there was still strong interest in the condensed format that ended up with Lizards lifting the trophy and NZR.

Bannon knows first-hand how appealing the weight-restricted grade is and feels it could be a big hit back home.

“It’s something I think Ireland could really adopt,” says Bannon. 

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PIC The Eden Lizards' Irish crew: Sean McNicholl, Bannon, Richie Reilly, and Colm McNicholl [left to right].

“I know from coming from school and being one of the little guys, you’re suddenly playing guys who feel like giants. I’m 31 and I’ve had five operations. My shoulder is goosed and I’ve got neck problems.

“With 85s, you can go out and play against guys who are the same size. Yes, they’re powerful and quick but it’s 85kg maximum. You’re not dealing with a guy who is 120kg. The skill level is through the roof. If you think a game of senior rugby is quick, wait until you see the pace of this rugby.”

NZR has plans to bring the 85s model into Asia, where Bannon reckons it could be a huge hit but he also insists that established rugby nations are missing out. 

His experience is that people who might otherwise have simply stopped playing rugby are remaining in the game thanks to 85s.

“After the final, Auckland University’s captain said that if he hadn’t found this grade of rugby when he came up to Auckland for work five years ago, he would have given up rugby. That’s the key – it’s about keeping guys in the game.

“This is something to really be grasped around the world, I think it could be a massive success. If more of the bigger unions grasp it, there’s a huge opportunity.”

“I think it could be looked at as an alternative to U20s [age-grade] rugby. When guys come out of school, you get some people left behind because they’re not good enough to play 20s.

“It’s also an opportunity for guys who aren’t willing to put their bodies through the senior or junior rugby space, to keep them engaged and involved.

cc1f0248-6658-41df-9118-c4efbef1d2bd Bannon with the national 85s trophy.

“A lot of people love the sport and it’s a shame to see them leave because they feel they’re not physically cut out for it. Give them that opportunity, give them that pathway.”

85s has allowed Bannon the chance to cut his teeth as a coach, having learned from the likes of Kingsley in Ireland and, more recently in New Zealand, coach development experts Michael Marnewick and Richie Harris.

Though the pace of the game is higher, coaching 85s is obviously very similar to other 15-a-side rugby coaching. The Lizards employ a 1-3-3-1 attacking shape and Bannon has put a big focus on their skill development.

He isn’t certain where his coaching pathway will lead next but he hopes to see the Lizards kicking on after this year’s trophy glory. With Bannon’s passion for 85s only continuing to grow, he’s a happy man over in New Zealand.

“I love the life over here. This country is incredible, the people are amazing, and the scenery is glorious. It’s a different way of life and I’m fully invested.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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