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'It's a huge thing for everyone in Sligo seeing them in Connacht jerseys'

Sligo RFC continue to produce promising players to drive their AIL team and rise even further.

ALTHOUGH SLIGO MIGHT not be widely renowned as oval ball country just yet, none other than Joe Schmidt has called it “one of the hotbeds of rugby in Ireland.”

Schmidt’s words came in 2016, soon after three products of Sligo RFC – Cillian Gallagher, Conán O’Donnell and Stephen Kerins – had played for the Ireland U20s together.

That achievement was momentous for the Hamilton Park club, which is one of the oldest in Ireland, and the talented trio has continued to do the club proud since.

Stephen Kerins, Cillian Gallagher and Conan O’Donnell Kerins, Gallagher and O'Donnell at the Connacht Rugby awards in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Gallagher and O’Donnell are now on senior contracts with Andy Friend’s Connacht, while scrum-half Kerins is in the academy and was a key part of the Connacht Eagles side in the Celtic Cup in recent weeks.

Sligo RFC are a Division 2B club in the All-Ireland League – they face Wanderers at Hamilton Park at 2.30pm this afternoon – and plan to continue to produce homegrown players to play in the AIL and possibly rise through the ranks like O’Donnell, Kerins and Gallagher.

That trio made an impression from the off, with Kerins and O’Donnell – both of whom are 22 – coming through the age grades together, while 21-year-old Gallagher came hot on their heels.

“Conan was built for the job he’s at,” says Sligo RFC’s John Davey, who has been coaching in the club’s youths set-up for 15 years. “He’s a natural prop. They’re not made, they’re born.”

O’Donnell, who initially burst to prominence for the Ireland U20s as a tighthead has switched to loosehead in recent years and is gaining great experience with Connacht, making his fifth appearance of the season last night against the Ospreys.

“Conan was more relaxed but athletically, even at eight-years-old, he was like a wee wrecking ball,” says John Kane, who coached O’Donnell and Kerins from U8s to U13s and is currently assistant manager of Sligo’s AIL team.

“He was a prop who thought he was a winger! He was a great character, a really funny kid who played with a smile on his face.”

conan O'Donnell in Sligo colours as a seven-year-old. Source: Sligo RFC

O’Donnell, who played two years of Ireland U20s rugby, came from a big GAA family and his father is still involved in the St. Mary’s GAA club, but his potential was clear as he shone from the start alongside Kerins.

“Stephen always had an incredible attitude,” says Kane of scrum-half Kerins, who is in his third year with the Connacht academy.

“No matter who you were or how good you were, how big or strong, he would always better you. He has an amazingly competitive streak in him and anything he lacked in talent, he made up for in determination.”

Both of Kerins’ older brothers were good at rugby too, while his sister is a fine soccer player, so sport came naturally.

“Stephen could play everything,” says Davey. “You could give him a hurl and off he’d go and within a week he could probably make any team in the country.

“We always had a thing in the rugby club encouraging the kids to play everything, not to specialise too early. He played an international U16 tournament with Sligo Rovers and was player of the tournament. But he gave up soccer the next season because he really wants the rugby.”

Gallagher, the youngest of the trio, wasn’t part of the same underage teams as O’Donnell and Kerins but all in Sligo RFC could see that he was special.

unnamed Kerins, O'Donnell and Gallagher on a visit back to the club. Source: Sligo RFC

“Physically, he’s a superb athlete and he was a fantastic basketballer as well,” says Kane. “You could always tell with him that he was going to go places.”

Indeed, it was something of a tussle for Gallagher’s affections as he played basketball for Ireland at underage level. The 6ft 6ins lock/back row is known as ‘Crouchy’ around Sligo after his early growth spurt drew comparisons to English footballer Peter Crouch.

“As an athlete, he’s kind of a freak because he can do everything,” says Davey. “He has the height, he has the pace, he has the stamina. He’s one of these fellas you don’t see too often.”

Gallagher, O’Donnell and Kerins all came through school at Summerhill College, who they also played rugby for. Kane says Sligo RFC has a strong working relationship with Summerhill, as well with Sligo Grammar School.

The now-Connacht trio aren’t the only talented players Sligo has produced. 

David McGowan played for Connacht and Top 14 side La Rochelle during his career, as well as for the Ireland U19s and U21s, while Sligo’s list of representative honours includes several others.

Cathal Sheridan played for Munster before retiring through injury, while hooker Sean Henry was with Munster and Connacht until being forced into retirement in 2015. Centre Niall Kenneally was with Munster’s academy and now captains Cork Con.

Cathal Sheridan Ex-Munster scrum-half Cathal Sheridan came through Sligo RFC. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Matthew Cosgrove was a highly-promising back row who came through at the same time as O’Donnell and Kerins, played for the Ireland U18s, was part of Connacht’s system, and was set for an Ireland U20 call-up until suffering an horrific injury in 2016.

The injury involved several ligament tears in his knee and his hamstring coming off the bone during a tackle while playing for Sligo, ending his hopes of moving into the pro game. Cosgrove is, thankfully, now back playing for the club in the AIL.

Prop Kuba Wojtkowicz got a call-up for the Ireland U20s during the World Championship in June and though he was recently released from Connacht’s academy, he will continue to play for Sligo and hopes to prove the province wrong.

Sligo’s promising number eight Donnacha Byrne is currently part of the Ireland U18 Clubs squad, while Luke Hogge and Hubert Gilvarry played alongside him for Connacht U18s in August.

“We are consistently producing talented young fellas, we’re very lucky that way,” says Kane. “The structures in place are very good, there are great people involved and they do their best to try and keep that production line going.”

Around three-quarters of Sligo’s current AIL squad are homegrown players, while they have enough numbers to run seconds and thirds teams as well.

That local talent helped drive the club to promotion from Division 2C last season under head coach and Sligo native Ross Mannion in his last campaign in the role. 

There is no U20s set-up at the club, although that age grade is a problem all over the country, and Sligo’s players simply move into senior rugby at that point.

“On the periphery, where we are in Sligo, we have to have a conveyor belt of players coming through every year,” says Davey.

Donnacha Byrne Ireland U18 Clubs number eight Donnacha Byrne is one to watch. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“We’re going to lose some to work and college that simply can’t get back to Sligo for weekends, but our ambition is to have at least three lads coming through the youths system every year that can go on to make the senior team.”

The seniors, who have one win from three games before today’s meeting with Wanderers, are targeting the top four of Division 2B this season and Sligo has slowly but surely developed into something of a rugby town.

“It’s becoming a big deal,” says Davey. “I remember going back a few years ago, when I played, you’d go in with a black eye to work or a cut on your face and they’d be like, ‘Ah, he was out drinking again!’

“Now it’s a badge of honour because you play rugby. It’s not elitist at all anymore.”

Watching O’Donnell, Kerins and Gallagher represent the club for Connacht will hopefully inspire the next generation as Sligo RFC aim to continue producing excellent players.

“When they come back to the club, they’d do anything for us, meet any of the youth teams, come to juvenile training sessions, there’s never any problem there,” says Kane.

“It’s a huge thing for everyone seeing them in Connacht jerseys, everyone’s so delighted to see those guys doing well. Any time they’re playing, there are people taking a trip to Galway and there’s a real sense of pride about it.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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