Club Focus: College are set to take on big test of top flight for first time

Daragh Small hears how the Mardyke will host elite of Irish rugby in All-Ireland League

Ryan Murphy on the ball
Ryan Murphy on the ball

The Mardyke will finally feature in the top flight of the All-Ireland League for the first time this season when UCC take on the very best that Irish club rugby has to offer.

It is some achievement for a college side, which naturally finds it difficult to retain talent from one year to the next. And such is the cyclical nature of the way these teams operate that UCC will have to do without former captain Paul Kiernan this term.

Kiernan, the son of Ireland’s Triple Crown drop-goal hero Michael, has left to study a Masters at Michael Smurfit Business School in Dublin. However, the majority of the rest of a young and exciting squad will try their luck in Division 1A.

Indeed, UCC are brimming with talent at the moment, and they had four players on this year’s Ireland U-20 squad, with Jack O’Sullivan, James French, Peter Sylvester and Bryan O’Connor all involved.

New president Rory Bevan played with UCC back in the late 1970s through to the early ’80s. His was a team jam-packed with international, national and provincial talent.

That side included the likes of Donal Lenihan, Paul Collins, Brian Spillane, Paul Durham, Alex O’Regan and John Barry, and they would claim a Munster Senior Cup in 1981 when they beat Shannon.

Bevan is determined to bring back the good days to UCC, and the fact that the team are now operating in 1A has given him the ideal base to work from.

“We put in place a very good coaching set-up, starting with Conor Twomey, who is assistant coach for the Irish U-20s, David O’Mahony, the current Irish Universities coach, and our head coach Brian Walsh, a former Munster assistant coach. It puts in place an added attraction that guys coming out of school will know that they will be developed,” said Bevan.

“One of the club’s selling points would be that we have a player development programme for school leavers to help them transition from schoolboy to adult rugby.

“To achieve that we have put in place professional S&C facilities, as well as professional skills coaching. The idea is that we will develop them from schoolboy to be capable of playing adult rugby.

“It’ll help us be successful at a high level in the elite division in the All-Ireland League, but to give the current crop of players the positive experiences which I had in my day is the goal – to give them a positive experience during their time here.”

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Almost 20,000 students are attending UCC in 2018 and there are a vast array of sports on offer throughout the campus.


In terms of field sports, GAA dominates the landscape, while soccer is another popular offering, but with Ireland and Munster continuing to thrive it creates a constant influx of young aspiring rugby talent.

Bevan grew up on Glasheen Road near the university and after he started out life at the famed Christian Brothers College in Montenotte, his love for the sport of rugby grew.

Rugby was massive in Munster at the time and Lenihan was the talk of the school as Bevan lined out alongside him in Junior and Senior Cup winning sides.

Bevan was a front-row forward, who adapted to life as a loosehead and tighthead prop, as well as a hooker.

But he settled in the No 1 jersey, which eventually meant that during a stint at Munster he was unlucky enough to join up at the same time that Ireland internationals Peter Clohessy and John ‘Paco’ Fitzgerald were plying their trade in a similar position.

“I went on to play with Highfield after playing with UCC. I captained Highfield to their only Munster Senior League win in 1991,” said Bevan.

He would return to UCC a few years later when his daughter Jennifer and son Robert were both studying at the university.

Jennifer is now an SHO in emergency medicine, while Robert has returned to his father’s old stomping ground of CBC. He is a PE teacher and also coaches rugby there.

“I returned to UCC when the kids went to college themselves. I felt I should give something back having had such fond memories of my time playing with the rugby club,” said Bevan.

“I just went into administration. I was helping with the running of the club.”

UCC were in the lowly ranks of Division 2B of the Ulster Bank League at the time, but things have turned dramatically in recent years.

In 2017-18 they finished fourth in 1B, after 10 wins from their 18 outings in the league, but UCC took off in the promotion play-offs. They secured a brilliant 36-24 win over St Mary’s College in the final four and then gained promotion with a brave 15-10 victory away to Banbridge at Rifle Park.

The unlikely success came courtesy of tries from John Hodnett and Kiernan, meaning five Munster clubs will participate in 1A this season. It’s a huge step forward for club rugby in the province, with Leinster teams dominating the Ulster Bank League of late.

Bevan knows the capabilities of the current UCC crop, and he hopes they can make good on it when they begin their campaign against UCD at Belfield on October 6.

“This is essentially an undergraduate rugby club. The ethos of the club is to be an undergraduate club. It’s a club dominated by students. It will always be cyclical and the success tends to be cyclical. But hopefully now that we are in Division 1A for the first time in our history, we want to be able to attract the brightest and best from schools around the province to play for UCC.

“Players move on a year or so after they graduate, that would be the ethos of the club. Other clubs benefit from the development of the players that we do in UCC.

“But now the famous Mardyke, for the first time, will feature in Division 1A. It will be a great addition, given its fame and natural attractive environment on the edge of the River Lee.

“I just hope the lads can push on this year and do well in the elite division.”

Irish Independent

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