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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 18 February, 2019
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Doyle leads the march as Garryowen bounce straight back to top flight

The former Munster centre/out-half was appointed head coach at the start of the season.

RUGBY TRADITIONALISTS ALL over the country might have breathed a sigh of relief last weekend as Garryowen confirmed their promotion into Division 1A of the Ulster Bank League with a play-off win over St. Mary’s.

2014 saw the famous Limerick club relegated from the top flight of the All-Ireland league for their first time in their history.

Eddie Rossiter and Rory Parata Hooker Eddie Rossiter fends a Galwegians tackle attempt. Source: Mike Shuaghnessy/INPHO

But led by head coach Conan Doyle, the Dooradoyle men have bounced straight back up for next season, returning to where many would suggest they belong.

Having won three All-Ireland leagues, two All-Ireland cups and a host of Munster titles over the course of their 131-year history, as well as providing countless players to Munster and Ireland, the Limerick outfit are steeped in a tradition of success.

At the end of his first season as head coach, Doyle admits he was “very relieved” to watch his team claim a 13-3 victory after an intense clash with Mary’s at the Dublin club’s Templeville Road grounds last Saturday.

29-year-old Doyle says they had “messed up an opportunity” for automatic promotion by losing to eventual Division 1B winners Galwegians in a regular season meeting two weeks beforehand, but thankfully all has ended well after their play-off win.

Much has been made of a perceived growing dominance of the Dublin clubs in Irish club rugby circles in recent years, but Garryowen’s promotion and Young Munster’s strong season in 1A have provided encouragement to the contrary this season.

“It’s great for Munster club rugby,” says Doyle. “Munsters last weekend against Lansdowne in the 1A semi-finals, they were very unlucky.

“I think it’s good for Irish rugby as a whole, definitely Munster rugby and especially Limerick rugby to have another team up in the top division. It’s where guys really want to play and this gives more people in Limerick the chance to play top-flight rugby next season.”

Conan Doyle Doyle's coaching reputation continues to grow. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Doyle, a lifetime Garryowen clubman and a professional player with Munster as recently as 2009, says the player drain from Limerick to Dublin has been noticeable in the last number of years.

“I suppose for some guys they’re going up there and being assisted by clubs in getting jobs. It’s probably easier for Dublin clubs to do that because there are more job opportunities up in Dublin at the moment,” says Doyle.

Garryowen themselves lost three backs just before the start of the season, forcing Doyle to shelve his plans to focus solely on coaching and instead take on a player/coach role. Not that the twice-capped ex-Munster midfielder was complaining about departures.

The quality is still there, but our player base is smaller. We used roughly 25 players over the course of the season, it’s a small base. But there’s still obviously good quality playing, there’s still the ability to compete.”

With Tom Tierney having left for Cork Constitution at the end of last season, Garryowen needed to find a man to take over and Doyle’s growing reputation as a coach saw him handed the reins.

The Limerick man, now a teacher by profession, had led Crescent Comprehensive College to back-to-back Munster Schools Senior Cups titles in 2013 and 2014.

“It was definitely beneficial having coached the school before and having experience,” says Doyle of taking on the Garryowen job.

Garryowen players dejected after the game Garryowen were beaten to automatic promotion by 'Wegians but recovered to win their play-off. Source: Mike Shuaghnessy/INPHO

“There would have been questions of me coming in at my age to do the senior job in Garryowen, but to have that experience of knowing what you’re doing was very important. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that experience.”

Indeed, a then 28-year-old being appointed as the head coach of such a prestigious club ruffled one or two feathers, although Doyle’s outstanding playing background backed up the impression he had made with Crescent Comp.

Aside from being Garryowen’s club captain, Doyle had played twice in the Celtic/Magners League for Munster, been part of Ireland’s squad for the 2009 World Cup Sevens and represented his country at U21 level.

An intelligent playmaker with strong decision-making ability and excellent technical skills, Doyle says he has taken much from his days with Munster into his coaching career.

I would have picked up different things from different coaches over the years. It definitely helps with your ideas on how the game should be played.

“Guys like Alan Gaffney when I started, right through to Tony McGahan when I finished off, so you pick up all those things along the way.

“If I think back to when I started doing stuff with the school, I was thrown in at the deep end, but I would have come on a hell of a lot since then. I was learning on my own back then.”

The current season was just Doyle’s fourth as a coach, so he has been thankful to have a strong backroom team around him.

Conan Doyle and Paul Huntley Doyle in Munster colours back in 2008. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Paul Neville as forwards coach “showed me the ropes,” while former Munster teammate Mark Melbourne is Garryowen’s physio. Doyle brought in Damian O’Donoghue as strength and conditioning coach after working with him in Crescent, while his friend and long-time teammate Dave Sherry has captained the side.

He picks out team manager Seamus McDermott for a special word of praise.

“Seamie has been brilliant, he’s really helped me. He probably did most of the work this year, he was brilliant!”

On the pitch, exciting players like Munster academy backs Alex Wootton and Jamie Glynn have combined well with the talent of Jamie Gavin, Andrew O’Byrne and the now Munster-capped scrum-half Neil Cronin.

Up front, a settled, hardened pack including the likes of back row Sherry, hooker Eddie Rossiter, powerful lock Aaron McCloskey and home-grown prop Ben Rowley has been vital too.

Doyle’s philosophy in bringing all the elements together has been one of ensuring the players are getting what they want out of rugby.

You want the players to be as happy as possible in what they’re doing,” says Doyle. “You go back to amateur guys being involved – they don’t have to go out and play, they want to go out and play because they enjoy it.

“It’s not like you can tell them they have to do something, because they can tell you they’re off! Now guys won’t do that obviously, but if guys are giving up their time to put in a hard slog for the club, they need to be enjoying themselves as much as possible.”

It’s certainly been fun for Garryowen in bouncing straight back into 1A at the first effort, even if there were a few nervy moments along the way and a Munster Senior Cup final defeat to Tierney’s Cork Con in January.

The next goal is solidifying their top-flight status and going on to compete for titles as they so often have in the past.

Charlie Butterworth and Conan Doyle Departures and injuries forced Doyle to play on alongside his coaching this season, despite missing the pre-season! Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Doyle is learning more about his craft with each passing game and training session in Dooradoyle, all the while enjoying his day job teaching Maths across the road at Crescent Comp.

He will step back to an assistant coaching role with the school side next season after being head coach in this campaign, delighted to still be involved. The primary rugby focus, however, will be on making a success of the return to 1A with Garryowen.

The signs in Doyle’s coaching path so far have been nothing but positive, and we may be seeing this man in the professional game some time in the future.

I wouldn’t say no to it, I’m enjoying it,” says Doyle when we ask if he would pursue coaching on a full-time basis. “This is only my fourth year, so I want to see how things go with Garryowen.

“It’s been a good start but I really want to test my ability at the next level up and take it from there. I really enjoy my job as a teacher, so I have to concentrate on that as well. If opportunities came up in the future, you never know.

“The young energy is getting me through it so far!”

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Murray Kinsella

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