Following success in the Provincial Towns Plate, Kilkenny 1st XV are looking to close out 2017 with their second title of the year.
Kilkenny host Enniscorthy in the South East League final on Saturday, December 30.
Having received a walkover from Wicklow in 2016, Kilkenny are the defending champions. Not having earned the ’16 title on the field, the Foulkstown outfit will want to do it the right way this time.
The SEL crown was last won by Kilkenny in 2006. That side was coached by Mick O’Neill and Lar Foley, was captained by Pat Holden and involved Bryan Hanrahan, Kelvin Daly and Vinny O’Shea.
All the others from 2006 have retired or moved on, bar current Seconds player James Blanchfield and former club Captain David O’Connor, who is currently on work placement in Finland.
On that day O’Connor had a superb outing at No. 6 and was joined in the back row by then stalwarts Dinny Brennan and Neil Campion while Blanchfield played alongside ex-Leinster player Pat Holden in the second row.
For some clubs the South East League has become a minor competition. However, Kilkenny and Enniscorthy have always prioritised the local area competition and both will be all out to win.
Following a disappointing league start in 2016/17, Kilkenny entered 2017 with high ambitions. A mid-season change in coaches saw current coach and past club player Dermot Dunne take charge.
Dunne turned around fortunes though unable to avoid relegation. It was generally accepted the side had a defined game plan, was harder to beat and had one eye towards building for the 2017/18 campaign.
Kilkenny were unfortunate to exit the Towns Cup in the first round, losing to Wicklow by point.
Kilkenny regrouped and went on to lift the Provincial Towns Plate, defeating Dundalk 18-9 in the final, and Portlaoise and Longford along the way.
Coming into 2017/18 Kilkenny lost back row Ronan Scott, who returned to his home club Navan. Then before the start of the season it was learned that club Captain and No 8 David O’Connor had to move to Helsinki to work.
Considerable losses, but Kilkenny regrouped for the J1 Leinster League. In came Kiwi centre Ti Lewington and Zimbabwean lock Graham Logan.
Resources were further bolstered by the return of tighthead prop Simon O’Shea from a year’s teaching experience in the UK. Kilkenny started the season with an away win over Coolmine.
A home loss to Longford put a dent in the title ambitions. Kilkenny then went on a three game unbeaten run, beating Portlaoise, league leaders Tullow and North Kildare before being stopped in their tracks by Suttonians.
The Cats returned to winning ways with a home win over Clondalkin and a blistering 66 point win over Coolmine.
Currently sitting in joint third with Longford, the return fixture between the sides fell foul of the Winter weather and has been rescheduled for Sunday.
Looking to the New Year, Kilkenny harbour ambitions of a return to the top division. The team is hugely talented. The resources are in place and a solid commitment on an off the field will go a long way towards helping to achieve the goal.
Recently returned players include dynamic backrowers Garry Dunne and Jay Leahy, while centre Philip Walsh and utility back Rory McInerney have added considerable spice to the backs, the latter adding immense speed and unpredictability when counter attacking.
The players and coaching staff have targeted a strong run in the Towns Cup. A favourable first round home draw could tee up Kilkenny to be contenders.
The Second XV have had a few tough seasons. Playing in Division 1A meant they had to play games on Saturday afternoons.
Due to work and study requirements, this restricted many players. The drop down to Division 1B resulted in a return to Sunday rugby and has freed up more players.
Those who returned are Cormac Connolly, Hugh Lane, Ian Holohan, Ciaran Sutton and more.
The Seconds have been very competitive, winning four of their eight matches. The hope is that this competitiveness and upward trend will continue.
This is the first season in five that Kilkenny have not fielded a Thirds side. The Thirds enjoyed some success in recent years, winning three leagues in-a-row.
However, retirements meant there weren't enough players. With attendances at training increasing all the time it is hoped a Thirds XV will play friendlies in the new year and will be entered in to the Anderson Cup.
Incidentally, the Anderson Cup is the only junior cup competition that Kilkenny RFC have not won. In 1989 Kilkenny fell at the final hurdle.
The Minis Section, under-6 to 11, continues to go from strength to strength. Every Sunday morning in excess of 200 boys and girls attend training in Foulkstown.
Under the guidance of minis chairman, Tom Marry, this section will continue to grow and develop the next generation of players.
The Youths Section, under-12 to 19, have endured a baron few years. The club fields under-14 to 18 teams every week.
The transition from youths to senior rugby appears to be a problem, but plans are afoot to tackle this issue.
Rugby in schools
The absence of competitive rugby from secondary schools in Kilkenny doesn't help, and youths chairman, Brian Keogh hopes to see the return of Kilkenny representation in Leinster schools competitions.
Kilkenny CBS, as recently as 2003, won the Leinster A Schools Cup.
The CBS team of that year included current 1st XV player, Dearan McGrath and others such as Richard Byrne and Craig McInerney, who represented Kilkenny at 1st XV level.
Sadly, 2017 saw the withdrawal of the junior ladies side from the Leinster League. The women’s teams have been victims of their success with key players Jane O’Neill, Susan Shirley, Megan Kenny and Ciara O’Dwyer finding the lure of provincial rugby too much. They moved to play senior rugby with Old Belvedere and St Mary’s, while Nel Henderson has taken a year out to travel to Australia and Kate Hennessy hung up her boots after years of service.
The loss of six players and the spine of the side proved too much. The plan is to field again at this level.
The under-age girls teams are going from strength to strength under coaches, Gary Brickell (under-10-12) and Bryn Nation (under-13 14).
Off the field 2017 has been a good year for Kilkenny RFC. President Padraic Treacy and his committee have driven the club forward and developed the club motto of ‘Kilkenny RFC, many teams but, One Club’.
It is anticipated that phase two of the ground development at Foulkstown - refurbishment of existing dressing rooms two more added, new shower area, treatment room, referees room and a gym area - will commence in early 2018.
Phase 1 was completed in 2006 which involved floodlighting on two pitches and the refurbishment of the clubhouse.
Upon completion of phase two it is hoped that fund-raising for a third and final stage can be planned and completed over the next 10 years.
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