by Ciarán McGreal
Westport RFC is fast approaching its centenary but the club is showing no signs of slowing down with a burgeoning youth set-up driving the club to new heights.
The Mayo club have been successful in junior rugby over the last few years but the 2016-17 season has proven a little tougher to conquer.
According to head coach Eddie Walsh, the senior team are in a transition period after some retirements and departures, but he hopes the introduction of young players over the coming years will see the team get back on track.
"We've had a pretty successful couple of years," Walsh says. "The last two years we've won the league and the cup and we won also in the Cawley Cup but this year we've lost 10 of that panel out of about 24 guys.
"Unfortunately there were a couple of retirements and a few lads moved on. It's a cliché but we're in transition. We're trying to play as well as we can this year and hopefully over the next year or two we'll build up the players again and get in a couple of young lads and get back to where we're usually at."
Bringing in talented youngsters shouldn't be too hard as the club have a thriving underage section. Jamie Dever and Pat O'Toole are two former Westport men enrolled in the Connacht academy and the club is hopeful a few more of its underage stars will follow suit in the coming years.
Walsh feels Dever and O'Toole are important standard-bearers and also pointed out another batch of players who are impressing.
"We have Dylan Prendergast who's with our U17s and he played with the Connacht U18s last year at only 16. He's a huge prospect. There are also a few guys in the development squads, the Mayo development squad, we'd have seven or eight of the U-15s and the U-16s involved in that.
"But looking up to those two lads, Jamie and Pat, it just shows the young fellas that they could make a living out of this if their quality comes through."
The club's minis section begins at U7s and the club fields several youth teams up to U17s. Approximately 260 kids are involved and president Sean Corcoran feels the development of the club's coaches is a key factor in the success at underage level.
"Of course the parents travel with the kids and they're always involved but over the last few years, there's a lot of courses for coaches in Connacht so we got a lot of the parents involved in that," said Corcoran.
"That's happened in the last two years and it's really paying off. Connacht have given a lot of help over the last few years. They've really come on board with every club and they try to get kids into rugby at an early stage and for them all to play a certain kind of rugby."
Westport have a great affiliation with Connacht and many of their members make the pilgrimage to Galway for Connacht's home games at the Sportsground.
"Every game anything up to 100 or 150 lads would go to Connacht home games," notes Corcoran. "The PRO12 final last year there were four or five buses that went over from Westport to Edinburgh. For the bigger games they'd travel to away games but the home games especially."
Walsh praised Pat Lam's squad for their efforts to promote rugby in the province over the last few years.
"It's probably the first time I've ever cried at a rugby match to see them beat Leinster in the final," he recalls. "It was beyond a dream to see it happen. We're very disappointed that Pat Lam is moving on but we're also so grateful for what he's done in the province and rugby in this area.
"And he's not just in Galway. He's in Leitrim, he's in Roscommon, he's in Sligo and Mayo and he's always brought the team around. The young lads love it. They're so excited about it. It's a really exciting time for rugby in Connacht at the moment."
Westport have made great strides in girls' rugby of late which has led to recognition for its players at provincial and international level. The club field teams at U15 and U18 level and Corcoran noted the growing popularity of rugby among girls in the area.
"The number of girls is growing all the time. There are nearly 80 of them. It's very popular. It's taken off and they seem to love it. They've done well. We have a few in the Connacht set-up and right up to the Irish set-up."
Westport's U18 girls side have been particularly successful of late. The team won the league and cup double last year as well as this year's league. 12 of the side are involved with Connacht while Grace Moran Brown was one of three Connacht-based players named in a training squad for the Ireland U18 girls sevens side.
Mayo is a Gaelic football stronghold and the GAA club are preparing for an All-Ireland intermediate final, but the rugby club also hold an important place in the community. The club run a number of fundraising initiatives in the town.
"We run a youth disco in the clubhouse," notes Corcoran. "We have 12 or 14 of them each year. It's an U16, non-alcohol disco. They're our biggest fundraising at the moment. That and the usual quiz nights and horse racing nights."
Westport have some development works planned and Walsh feels the installation of floodlights is vital for junior clubs.
"We're going to develop the clubhouse and the grounds. We're going to make more dressing rooms because the ladies' rugby is so good now that we have to. We're also looking to make the pitch fully floodlit because I think that's where junior rugby is going.
"We need games on Saturday evenings or on Friday nights. It would be nice to have a game under lights. People could come down and meet and enjoy the game and have a few drinks afterwards.
"That's what we're looking to in the future. It's about trying to make it more sociable for supporters and players."
This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent’s Connacht Rugby supplement which is available in newsagents every Friday throughout the season.