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Dublin: 13 °C Friday 22 February, 2019
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'Unheard of': Royal County rugby on verge of coronation as Navan challenge on two fronts

The influence of director of rugby Alan Kingsley and some energetic U20s is pushing Navan torwads their first promotion since reaching the UBL.

A general view of Navan RFC scoreboard Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

WAY BACK IN August, Leinster began their season a little off the beaten track.

In keeping with their recent efforts to widen their reach beyond the traditional heartlands of south Dublin, they took their opening pre-season friendly to the banks of the Boyne.

The 3,000 strong crowd who went along to Navan’s Balreask ground got an early glimpse of what was to come from Leo Cullen’s young stars in the season ahead. The standout selections for the province’s first hit-out were Jack Conan as captain and Niall Morris, back playing for his native province before injury sadly brought his career to an early end.

With a host of replacements named, only the senior and most recent U20 internationals were flagged by the province’s press release. Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath were nestled quietly among them without giving away many hints about the landmark season that lay ahead for them.

A few months after a mid-table finish in Ulster Bank League Division 2C, few watching could have foreseen the special year that Navan RFC was about to have either.

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Navan’s rugby players had already laid their own foundations, purposefully approaching the new campaign determined not to let this be just another season.

“When last season was finished, we said to ourselves that we’d get lads in the gym a bit earlier, do a pre-season before pre-season, so we were right to go,” says team captain Bryan McKeever.

That was then. This is a big weekend in the history of Navan rugby.

Bounced

In a town synonymous with Gaelic football, Navan are a club who have become well used to the hurdles set for them in the lowest tier of All-Ireland rugby. They have bounced around a variety of divisions since winning promotion to what we now call the Ulster Bank League in 2009. That movement, though, has always been down to the redrawing of league formats rather than their own performances.

In 2011, they finished second from bottom of Division 3 with just two wins all season. A year later things were better under the banner of Division 2B with four wins to their name. The success rate doubled the following season too, eight wins for an eighth-place finish. There was a seventh, then 11th, and then the division was redrawn again.

“No, never won promotion or got anywhere close to the promotion end-of-season stage in good shape,” says director of rugby Alan Kingsley.

But 2C has been good to them.

17201050_10155233933737125_2834894035990344273_n Source: Navan RFC/Facebook

Today, Kingsley and McKeever have the chance to take a big step towards a first promotion since 2009. With two games remaining, they have a three-point lead over Sligo at the summit. A win away to Bangor for Kingsley’s men would leave the Connacht club needing to match the result at home to Tullamore just to force a winner-takes-all finale in Meath in the final round of fixtures.

So there’s still a bit of work to be done for Navan to move up a division automatically, but even their worst case scenario over the last two fixtures will leave them in a play-off situation. They’re in the driver’s seat, in control of their own destiny, where every team wants to be at the business end of the season.

A massive reason for the success in this campaign, McKeever says, was the arrival of Kingsley into the fold four years ago.

A native of Portlaoise, the director of rugby fleetingly refers to some major life decisions, made in extremely tight windows of time, which make it sound like he’s a touch carefree.

In reality, it’s more likely that he’s incredibly decisive.

After playing in both half-back roles for Young Munster, Kingsley set off for Australia for what was supposed to be a stint of around three months with the University of Western Australia in Perth.

Alan Kingsley Kingsley in action for Young Munster against St Mary's in 2011. Source: James Crombie

“I went to Australia, supposedly for 17 weeks to play 16 rugby matches. I didn’t come home for three-and-a-half years,” he tells The42 before overseeing a training session this week.

The transition from being a key player for the Cookies in Limerick to the Uni on the Indian Ocean was seamless enough. Kingsley helped his new team to a shock success in the WA Premiership final. Soon enough, he was sorted out with a job in the iron ore-rich mining area of Port Hedland and came back to the city for short, sharp rugby seasons that gave him a new outlook on the game.

“They play 18 games in 20 weeks and then semi-finals, final. It’s a short season compared to what we have here.”

“When I landed into it, they had played six or seven games of their season. I struggled to get to grips with their attitude at training. Where I came from, from very structured rugby where we knew what we were doing everywhere, to a training session where a coach would just throw the ball in and say: ‘Play!’

“It took a while to get to grips with their way of thinking. First game I played, it was 20 – 17 and we had a kick in front of the posts. But, last play of the game, we kicked to the corner to get the win rather than take the draw. They had a different way of thinking about rugby — in Ireland we’d have taken the two points.

“It did take me a while to get my head around the way they played and the attitude. We ran the ball from everywhere, so it definitely broadened my mind to different styles of rugby. That’s something I did bring back, to play a more expansive game and not be so conservative. Be positive with the ball if there’s a risk-reward.”

Captain McKeever can see that influence, but between the coach’s Limerick rugby tuition and the forward-driven ethos the powerful captain provides from number eight, Navan won’t be trying to be Fiji in the crunch games ahead.

“He’d always say play what’s ahead of you,” says the 28-year-old skipper.

He came in and brought a real enthusiasm to the place. He got lads believing, that was the main thing I felt our problem was. We knew we were good players, but the belief wasn’t always there. He instilled a belief in us.”

“You have to play to your strengths. We’ve a very big pack and we like coming around the corner, making space for the backs who are also very good. It’s worked nicely this year.”

Nicely is an understatement. Navan’s 28-point average per game (449 total) is only bettered in the AIL by the marauding Greystones and Brett Wilkinson’s Buccaneers.
There are few superlatives to correctly describe the feats of another crucial component in Navan’s recent success, however; their newly established, yet already high-achieving U20s side.

While the senior setup has taken eight years to challenge for honours at the All-Ireland level, the age grade men are well and truly hitting the ground running despite losing the bright prospect of Conor Nash to Aussie Rules.

They won last year’s second tier title, and this year they are pulling up trees again, defeating Dublin University 42-34, despite being reduced to 13 men at one stage of last week’s semi-final of the Fraser McMullen Cup. This Sunday on Templeville Road, they face the formidable Lansdowne in the final.

“It’s unheard of for a Navan U20 team to go up and be in an All-Ireland final, it’s usually for the likes of Lansdowne, Clontarf, Cork Con, Munsters and all those,” adds McKeever.

“When I was growing up, Navan didn’t have a 20s system in place. It’s very tough for a lad who is 17, 18, 19 to go straight into senior rugby. It’s incredibly difficult.”

As a consequence, players who found rugby in Navan, but were schooled in Dublin, opted to find a new club in the city. Two such prodigal sons, Sean Vodden and Sean O’Heir, were brought back from a stint with Lansdowne for this season, with a crop of last year’s successful 20s outfit and ex-Munster man Brian Hock making for a heady blend of precocious youth and willful experience.

17498895_10155287476932125_4651047062726449292_n Source: Navan RFC/Facebook

“It’s amazing what an injection of youth does to a squad,” says McKeever. “At the start of the season, it took a while to get going with combinations and that. But we’ve clicked into gear and it’s amazing how winning grows confidence.”

That confidence didn’t magically appear when the professional provinces arrived in August; it has been generated through years of hard work on many different fronts. So whatever division Navan put themselves in next season, they will rightly be mentally equipped to push into the one above.

“Our goal as a squad, as a club, is always to play to the next level,” the captain outlines.

“Whether that be going from 2C to 2B, or wherever we might be in a few years, the aim is always the next level.”

It’s close.

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Sean Farrell

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