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'Jack is after changing it big time for everyone in Waterford'

With two players in the Munster academy and Jack O’Donoghue in the Ireland squad, things are looking up for the Déise.

IT MIGHT BE difficult for some Munster supporters to believe but right now, the province’s academy contains more Waterford players than Limerick players.

The fact that there is only one Limerick man in Munster’s academy is a concerning story and something to explore another day, but having two promising Waterford players in the system is very exciting for the south-eastern county.

Second row Thomas Ahern’s exploits for the Ireland U20s in recent weeks have brought joy and pride to plenty of people in Waterford, with his try against Scotland the standout moment as he showed remarkable athleticism to finish from long-range.

thomas-ahern-celebrates-the-final-whistle Thomas Ahern celebrates the Ireland U20s' win over Wales. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ahern’s fellow lock and Waterford native, Eoin O’Connor – who is still in his first year of the academy, with Ahern in his second – was part of the wider U20 squad but picked up an unfortunately-timed injury. Though it looks like his season could be over, O’Connor is highly-regarded and has already shown his potential for Munster A.

The academy pair have an obvious role model in Munster in the shape of 26-year-old Déise man Jack O’Donoghue, whose superb form has earned him a place in Ireland’s current Six Nations squad. The back row will hope to add to his two Test caps before the championship is out.

O’Donoghue is a genuine trailblazer for Waterford rugby, the only man from the county to play for Munster and Ireland at senior level in the professional era.

Hurling-mad Waterford hasn’t been known as a rugby hotbed, as players from Limerick and Cork have historically dominated provincial selections. But the hope now is that this crop of Déise players will inspire even more to follow in their footsteps.

O’Donoghue wasn’t the very first person from Waterford to play for Munster at senior level, with a handful having come before him in the amateur era.

John O’Neill, a regional development officer for Munster Rugby, was among them.

O’Neill is a man who has lived and breathed Waterford rugby for much of his life. A fountain of knowledge on the history of the sport in the Déise, he has taken pleasure in watching O’Donoghue come from the underage ranks with Waterpark RFC, through Munster’s age-grade teams, and onto his current heights.

“The minute I saw Jack, I said ‘there’s a professional player,’” recalls O’Neill of first watching O’Donoghue, who helped Waterpark’s U17 team to All-Ireland success in 2010. “Every one of us knew he was going to make it.”

While previously Waterford players might have headed into Munster squads with an inferiority complex – O’Neill among them in his own time – O’Donoghue was different. He was used to winning, having been part of Waterpark’s excellent underage system.

“The Waterford thing didn’t matter to Jack, he bust that whole thing,” says O’Neill, whose role with Munster involves working with 22 clubs and many schools across the province. “I used to not really open my mouth in a team talk with Munster when I was playing even though I had ideas.

“Because Jack is there now, he’s after changing it big time for everyone back home. The young lads now are confident, Jack has done a lot for them. Jack is also very visible around Waterford, he comes home and that helps.”

john-oneill John O'Neill pictured in 2013 while in charge of the Munster Junior team. Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

Waterpark are currently in Division 1 of the Munster Junior leagues but O’Neill was with the Ballinakill-based club in the early 1980s when they really began to put themselves on the map for the first time.

There was no All-Ireland League back in those days, when Waterpark used to frequently travel to Dublin for friendlies. Only one competition counted, particularly if you were hoping for a Munster call-up.

“The Munster Senior Cup was it, nothing else mattered,” explains O’Neill. ”If you wanted to play for Munster, you had to perform in the Senior Cup.

“In those days it was Cork or Limerick lads who played for Munster, no one else. Waterford wasn’t seen, Tipperary players had to move to Limerick.”

O’Neill was part of a talented crop of youngsters who came through at the same time as the late, great John Moroney – an Ireland and Munster wing who originally hailed from Tipp and had starred for Garryowen – took over as Waterpark coach.

Suddenly, Waterpark started beating the likes of Sundays Well, Highfield, and Bohemians, as they played innovative attacking rugby.

“We weren’t scared of anybody,” says O’Neill, who was a centre. “We also got a few guys in from Waterford City RFC who had a bit of dog about them. They didn’t know about Young Munster or Dolphin or whoever, they weren’t scared either.”

In 1984, Waterpark marched all the way into the final against Young Munster in Thomond Park. Some reports say there were 13,000 people at the game and anyone who witnessed it will tell you it was one of the best-ever Senior Cup finals.

Waterpark were beaten 17-9 after a tightly-contested battle and O’Neill recalls the Waterford men receiving a standing ovation after playing exciting, open rugby that brought out the best in the Cookies.

Waterpark v Young Munster, 1984: Gerry Walsh; Tony Eiffe, John O’Neill, Carl Phelan, Eddie Jackman; Brendan Moran (captain), Aidan Walsh; Bob Murphy, Robin Walsh, Gus Walsh; Mick McNamara, Liam Whelan; Brian O’Connor, Paul Sheehan, Chris Anderson. Replacement: Mick Purcell.

Though Munster selection was a political beast, O’Neill and Waterpark fullback Gerry Walsh – another legend of Déise rugby – had done enough to get called up, Walsh becoming the first Waterford man to get a senior Munster cap and O’Neill following him.

Park The Waterpark team for the 1984 Munster Senior Cup final.

O’Neill started for Munster in their clash with the touring Australia at Thomond Park in November 1984, playing alongside the likes of Donal Lenihan, Tony Ward, Eddie O’Sullivan, Michael Kiernan, and Michael Bradley.

The Wallabies team included big names like Mark Ella, Nick Farr-Jones, and Andy Slack, while fullback Roger Gould punished Munster’s indiscipline with a superb display of goal-kicking in thick fog to help the visitors to a 31-19 victory. It was a remarkable tour for the Wallabies as they beat England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland for a Grand Slam. 

O’Neill was in and out of the Munster team in the years that followed and played for Ireland A against Scotland – scoring a try after Ralph Keyes’ garryowen bounced off the chest of Gavin Hastings – but Waterpark started to struggle as their great team broke up.

There was an enjoyable season in 1989/90, just before the All-Ireland League came in, when Waterpark managed to sign once-capped All Black utility back Marty Berry and had a fantastic campaign.

“It was the off-season in New Zealand and Marty came over, got paid, got a house. Marty showed us how to do proper weights because he was training hard to get back on the All Blacks team. It was a great season, it just buzzed the whole town.”

Waterpark’s tighthead prop Gus Walsh was the next Waterford man to play for Munster before Nigel Daly and Ben Cronin followed, but only after moves to Shannon and Garryowen, respectively. Number eight Cronin went on to win two caps for Ireland against Scotland in 1995 and 1997.

“Ben was one of the very best from Waterford, he was so quick off the back of the scrum, great hands,” says O’Neill. “A big, tall lad. He was elusive and would always get the ball into space, very smart on the field.

“We all went to the matches, there was pride. The reality was that he had to leave the club to get capped and we backed it. Gerry Walsh was back coaching Waterpark at that time, the AIL had come in and they were in Division 3, so Ben had to go and play in Limerick.”

There were more ups and downs for ‘Park but they retained their senior status and even got promoted into Division 2 of the AIL in 2003 after O’Neill returned to the club as coach, having also played with Highfield in Cork.

“But then I got sacked, so I was finished with Waterpark, that was me done, and they brought in an Australian coach,” recalls O’Neill, who subsequently watched the club drop back down into junior rugby by 2008, where they have remained since. The club has also had to fight through a period of major debt.

ben-cronin-12111996 Source: © Patrick Bolger/INPHO

But in those years of regression, Waterpark’s minis and underage system began to truly boom and it remains one of the most successful in the province to this day, with the club consistently winning Munster trophies at various age grades.

O’Neill has been working with Munster Rugby for over 15 years and was a central figure in the province getting their act together by setting up regulated minis rugby and underage leagues to allow the sport to thrive in places like Waterford.

There has long been talent in Waterpark – who will celebrate their centenary year in 2025 – and also in Waterford City RFC but getting players into Munster and Ireland underage squads hasn’t always been easy, even if there is a healthy list of representative honours at ‘Park.

Dungarvan has also produced talent. Steve McMahon is currently with Carcassone in France, while Niamh Briggs has been one of Ireland’s biggest stars in women’s rugby. 

Current Ireland U20s lock Ahern, who hails from Ardmore, first played with an amalgamated Dungarvan and Youghal team before making the move to Waterpark to star on the same underage team as O’Connor and Jay Traynor – who played for Ireland U18 Clubs last year. Ben Daly is another recent Ireland U18 international from ‘Park.

Waterford City, who have a proud history as a junior club, are currently very excited about the potential of young centre Luke Doyle, who has featured for Munster U18 Clubs. 

O’Neill and Munster now run an emerging schools rugby programme for Waterford schools that are new to the game, with blitzes at first-year, U15, and U17 levels once a month for male and female players, as well as 7s rugby at U18 level.  The uptake and engagement has been hugely encouraging.

Waterpark College and Newtown School have long been the traditional rugby schools in Waterford, but hurling stronghold De La Salle College – where O’Donoghue was a student – have taken to rugby in more recent years.

Beyond Waterford city itself, O’Neill delights in seeing the likes of Ardscoil na Mara in Tramore, Dungarvan CBS, and others now playing rugby.

In 2018, O’Neill was involved in an attempt to get a Waterford Schools team up and running, the idea being that this combined side would eventually bring the best schools players in the Déise together to play in the Munster Schools Senior Cup.

eoin-oconnor-in-a-rolling-maul Waterpark product Eoin O'Connor is in his first year with Munster's academy. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

A combined Waterford team did beat Limerick’s Villiers School at Thomond Park in October 2018 but, unfortunately, the initiative didn’t go any further. 

As for primary schools, the Aldi Play Rugby programme has been as wildly popular in Waterford as elsewhere around the country.

There has been a real success story in Tramore RFC, the club launching in 2013 with a sole focus on minis rugby. They now have in excess of 60 kids turning out every Sunday morning, playing with the club up to the age of 13 before moving on to Waterpark or Waterford City.

All of this greatly excites O’Neill, who believes that Waterford rugby has much more to offer Munster and Ireland in the future.

“We’re finding kids who have never played rugby before. Waterford is well covered now, we’re in all the schools. No one is being missed now.

“Jack is a beacon for all the young lads. I think we’re definitely going to have more players like Jack, we’re going to find more special players.

“Munster need players from everywhere. It means the eyes are open in Waterford.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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