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Dublin: 12°C Saturday 19 September 2020
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'We’re showing that you can have rugby in a predominantly working class area'

Tallaght RFC have changed perceptions and made real progress in the last five years.

IT’S A CRISP, cold Thursday night but it’s dry, meaning this is one of the better evenings for training at ‘Pitch 100,’ across the road from Firhouse Community College in Tallaght.

No rain means the uneven ground where Tallaght RFC’s first and second teams are training together hasn’t churned up into a mud bath. But this is still far from glamorous.

The lighting for the pitch comes from four makeshift lampposts that run off a generator in a shipping container alongside the pitch. The lighting doesn’t cover a full pitch, meaning training is focused inside a smaller area.

A second container houses a few benches where Tallaght’s players get changed before and after sessions.

There are no showers and no heating. Indeed, Tallaght RFC don’t have a clubhouse.

Tallaght Collie McEntee and Ultan O'Callaghan took a session at Tallaght on Tuesday. Source: Tallaght RFC

But that hasn’t stopped the Dublin club from making progress on the pitch in recent years, including earning a spot in next Saturday’s Leinster Metro League Division 6 final against Terenure [KO 3pm] at Tymon Park in Tallaght, where they play home games.

Winning would ensure back-to-back league titles for coach Tom Leigh and his players, while the seconds – who were only formed last year – have secured a place in the upcoming Division 11 final.

A Thursday evening visit to Pitch 100 and then down the road to the Old Mill bar – which serves as the club’s post-match meeting spot – paints a picture of a vibrant, ambitious and community-focused club.

First set up in 2002 as part of the IRFU’s since-ceased ‘Tallaght Project’ before adding a men’s team in 2006, the club has come a long way in the last five years in particular, becoming financially stable and making more consistent progress having previously jumped up and down the Metro Leagues, as well as in terms of playing numbers.

Given that Tallaght is the biggest suburb in Dublin with a population in excess of 75,000, club members like Leigh, chairman Luke Tyrrell, and honorary president Jim O’Connor believe there is huge rugby potential in the area.

But they admit that Tallaght RFC have had to work hard to shift perceptions about rugby both within and outside the local community.

There was a turning point a few seasons ago when Leigh and Tyrrell met with the players and asked them about their own perceptions of Tallaght rugby club, and what they believed other people’s perceptions of the club were.

“They came back with stuff like ‘knackers, scumbags, this, that, and the other,’” explains Leigh. “So we said we would change that and it’s kicked on from there.”

Tallaght implemented an approach stressing positivity towards each other, opposition teams, and also referees. No backchat would be tolerated, respect was the key word. They’d play tough but fair, no fighting.

They insisted that every single squad member had to go into the opposition team’s clubhouse after away games, even if just for one drink. 

“We said we’d go in as a group and engage with the other teams,” says Leigh. “That perception about Tallaght has definitely changed, although they probably don’t like us beating them now!”

Guinness-Al-Sower Alan Sower makes a carry for Tallaght. Source: Anne Kavanagh

Tyrrell says back when they had that meeting, Tallaght’s players felt they were also seen as “Ragball Rovers” by opposition teams.

“They had this perception that others thought that because they were from Tallaght, they had no money,” says Tyrrell.

“So we went out and got training tops and, if we can, we give them to the guys or sell them cheaply, and that means they’re all in the same gear, looking well, and even that was a huge thing.”

There remains work to do within Tallaght, which is primarily a Gaelic football and soccer area with successful and very popular clubs such as Thomas Davis GAA Club and Shamrock Rovers. It used to be the case – and still is to a degree – that people in the area simply weren’t aware that Tallaght rugby club existed.

“I remember one of the lads’ girlfriends was coming to a game a few years ago and she got off the Luas at the Square and asked the taxi driver to bring her to Tallaght rugby club,” recalls O’Connor. “The taxi driver brought her to St Mary’s College RFC because he didn’t have a clue, he hadn’t heard of the rugby club in Tallaght.”

While awareness of Tallaght RFC has been raised and they’re working hard to link with other local sports clubs, old perceptions still die hard for some.

“Rugby is perceived here the same way it is in a lot of other working class areas in Dublin – it’s considered an elitist sport in some areas,” says Tyrrell. “But I think we’ve cracked the nut on that once people know we’re here. 

“The people that know us, we’re considered very much a parish club, a grassroots clubs.”

“We’re showing that you can have rugby in a predominantly working class area,” adds O’Connor. “Everyone is welcome here.”

The club sprung from the IRFU’s aforementioned Tallaght Project, aimed at boosting rugby playing numbers in non-traditional areas. Among the first crop of young players was current captain Adam Nolan, who went on to play AIL rugby with Seapoint, but returned as his home club kicked back into life.

20200215_154242-2-1024x576 Tallaght will play in the Leinster Metro League Division 6 final next weekend. Source: Tallaght RFC

From modest beginnings, the club now has a youths section attracting around 100 kids every Sunday, while they get 35 players to men’s training most Tuesdays and Thursdays, whereas that was as low as seven or eight players only a few years ago.

The women’s team launched in 2012, while girls play with the ‘Bistos,’ combining with players from other clubs like Old Belvedere and St Mary’s. 

The ambitions in Tallaght are big. Tyrrell stresses the need for the club to grow slowly, not attempting to expand beyond its means, but there is excitement at the possibilities.

If Tallaght rugby club can continue to bloom, they see no reason why players from the area can’t shine for Leinster and Ireland in the future, even if they don’t necessarily stay with Tallaght RFC.

“They might go off to a rugby school and go from there, playing for Leinster – that’s very realistic in the next few years,” says Leigh.

“We could have a fella starting in Tallaght youths and getting picked up – like a Sean O’Brien, a Tadhg Furlong, a Conor O’Brien, someone who ventures on up the chain. There’s certainly a better chance now than eight or nine years ago.”

Having a high-profile figure from Tallaght playing professional rugby would be huge for the next generation of players.

“Leinster are content because they have players coming through their pipeline but the quality could be even better if they invested more in Tallaght,” says Tyrrell. “With this huge population, why not get another source of players?”

The club are working to build stronger relationships with local schools, with Tyrrell pointing out that there are 10 secondary schools in Tallaght with somewhere in the region of 6,000 students.

While Leinster Rugby have their own community rugby officers in the area, Tallaght captain Nolan has taken on a part-time role in this regard, enthusiastically working with Tallaght Community School, Firhouse Community College and Old Bawn Community School.

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2018-05-25_spo_41163751_I2 Tallaght also have a women's team. Source: Tallaght RFC

From that initiative, the Tallaght U16s have sprung into life and they had 17 players at training on Thursday night.

Nolan hopes these U16s go on to play for the club’s senior team. That the young Tallaght players are watching the current senior men’s team competing in finals is ideal inspiration.

“To captain your childhood club, it doesn’t get better than that,” says Nolan. “I’ve played with six or seven of the lads here since I was 12. Rugby doesn’t get more enjoyable than that. The energy is brilliant, it’s a family club.

“It means more because the lads are like brothers to you. Not having the facilities can be tough but we hope that as we progress further, that comes too. It would be great to really have a home.”

That’s the next step for Tallaght. They enjoy training at Pitch 100 but would love to get a long-term lease on the site from South Dublin County Council, which would allow them to get funding to build a clubhouse.

That would, in turn, allow the club to pursue ambitions to start a third men’s team, develop the women’s game, launch an U20s team, and create a special needs side.

Tyrrell explains that Tallaght have had help from some of the good and great in Irish rugby over recent seasons. Ireland assistant coach Richie Murphy visited in January for a kicking session and it’s no surprise to hear Joe Schmidt’s name pop up in this regard too.

The former Ireland head coach visited before a league final in 2017, sticking around at training long beyond the pre-agreed 20 minutes.

Joe-6 Tom Leigh, Joe Schmidt, and Luke Tyrrell. Source: Tallaght RFC

Ex-Ireland and Munster lock Donncha O’Callaghan will meet the first team on Monday in the Old Mill to present their jerseys for the Division 6 final, as well as doing a Q and A.

“We’re always looking for the edge,” says Tyrrell. “It’s a special thing for players to be in finals and progressing with their team-mates.

“Tom came up with a great one last year where we got all of the wives and partners of the players to write a card to wish them good luck. When they were out warming up, we put them on their seats. There were some tears when they came back in for their jerseys.”

The IRFU’s Colin McEntee and Ultan O’Callaghan visited the club last Tuesday, leading a training session on a muddy Pitch 100. That kind of support from the union is key but Tyrrell explains that Tallaght need to keep pushing for more from the IRFU and Leinster Rugby.

“To call a spade a spade, we don’t have our own facilities. Could the IRFU turn around and buy a plot of land in Tallaght and develop it for rugby here? Financially, of course it could.

“We look at all the people moving into Tallaght because the housing is affordable and it’s near the city centre. There are only two rugby pitches in Tallaght, Pitch 100 and Tymon Park, but you think of the size of Tallaght and the number of schools.

“Even if we got a few Ireland players up on a social night for a photograph opportunity, it would do an awful lot for us.”

Regardless of whether they get their own bit of land and build a clubhouse, Tallaght RFC aim to continue their growth and keep changing perceptions.

“We’re competing with other sports in Tallaght but we’re going the right away about it,” says Nolan. “We’re doing the talking with our rugby.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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