In an environment laden with economic buzz words, there’s more than one ‘R’ word that’s got some people riled down Ballinakill way over the past few weeks.
Waterpark’s relegation from the All-Ireland League will rankle until senior status is re-attained, which, all associated with the club and the game locally, hope they’ll achieve at the first attempt.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for ‘Park. Far from it. A talented group of young players, building on the success achieved at juvenile level in recent seasons, will play top flight rugby in the new Munster Under 21 grade next season.
It means the cream of emerging talent from across the province will be rucking, mauling, shimmying and drop goaling right here in Waterford, a timely boost to the union game’s profile in the south east.
The latest silverware on the sideboard – the Under 20 South Munster Cup – was secured after last Saturday’s 36-23 win over Dolphin. That club management are encouraged by their charges’ latest major victory goes without saying.
“This is a major step forward for the club,” said Under 21 manager Willie O’Brien. “Next season, we’ll be facing the likes of Cork Con, Garryowen, Shannon, UL Bohs and so on.
“It’s going to expose the team to a better level of rugby, a tougher level of rugby, but it’s up to everyone associated with the team to create the best possible preparatory environment to help them settle into this new division.”
The creation of the club’s academy structure, a venture supported by Ulster Bank and linked into WIT’s rapidly improving rugby club, is clearly reaping a rich reward.
“We’re heading into the third year of the academy’s three-year cycle, and we’re very pleased with how it has benefited us, how WIT has benefited and how the standard of rugby has risen in that time,” said Under-21 coach Ben Cronin.
The former Munster and Ireland number eight has played a key role in the development of the club’s academy. It’s a role he’s clearly enjoying.
“In the past we lost many good players we’d developed at juvenile level when they finished secondary school. They went to Limerick, Cork and Dublin and, unfortunately, that was the last we saw of a lot of guys who’d played all their rugby with us up to that point.”
Willie O’Brien added: “A lot of good players have been lost to the game at third level. The likes of UL and UCC can attract anything up to 80 players at the start of a new college year. That number soon gets whittled down, leaving as many as 30 players out of the loop and out of an active playing squad.
“What happens to those left out? They feel they’ve not made the grade, aren’t good enough, grow disillusioned and fall out of the game and we never get them back.
“But thanks to what we have in place now, we’re now in a position to say to Waterpark players going to college outside of Waterford that they can come home at weekends and play top level rugby on a regular basis.”
Ben Cronin, who has formed a great coaching unit with WIT’s Gerry Walsh, said that recent underage success is a key component in moving the club forward regarding a quick return to the AIL. But enjoying the game is also of vital importance.
“Look, when you’re losing all the time, it is very hard to enjoy your rugby, and that applies to whatever sport you play,” he added. “There’s little fun to be had when you’re losing every weekend.
“But we’ve had a bunch of hard working young players over the past few seasons that have more than punched their weight at their respective grades and that’s led us to where we now find ourselves. They’ve won regularly, enjoyed the taste of it and dug deep to get to this level.
“Winning, being competitive, adds enormously to any player’s enjoyment of the game and we’ve worked hard to foster an enjoyment of the game as well as a work ethic which in turn yields positive results.”
Given that there is such an abundance of young talent in the club, and given the senior team’s drop into J1, the temptation to flood the first XV with young players must be enormous.
“No, we can’t look at it that way,” said Willie. “Everyone in the club is determined to get things right when it comes to the first team, no question, but we’ve got to be sensible about how that is realised.”
Ben continued: “It’s a young man’s game today, for starters. When you look at most of the players playing senior rugby nowadays, very few of them have kids. Work pressures make it very tough on some older guys to give the kind of commitment a club needs, but it’s not an ideal world and we’ve got to adapt as best we can.
“When guys are 20, 21, they don’t have the pressures or concerns that older players have when it comes to their daily lives, so it’s a time in a player’s life when they really should make the most of the opportunities that rugby provides.
“Now you could be very foolish and headstrong about the first team, but that could go wrong very easily. Throwing a lad in his early 20s into the senior team only for him to get broken up badly is not the way to go.
“Of course, some players are ready for the step up more quickly than others but we know we must be patient when it comes to developing players mentally and physically.
“And in fairness to the first team’s management, they’ve given us free rein over our players during the first two years of the academy so I think there’s a pragmatic streak running through the entire club about where we’re going and how we can get there.”
Gerry Walsh, according to both Willie and Ben, is another key link in the Waterpark chain. “Our partnership with WIT is invaluable,” said Ben. “And Gerry has been fantastic. We’re delighted to have him weighing in and he’s brought a hell of a lot to the table.
“The college team has benefited as well over the past two years and all the players get on brilliantly with Gerry, which is another positive that the academy has brought about.
“That both Waterpark and WIT are moving forward together is just what we had in mind when we established the academy and it’s something we’re anxious to expand over the next few years.
“We’re giving students an added incentive to come to Waterford as well as giving guys in their late teens a reason to come home and keep playing their rugby with us thanks to top level competition. It’s a major win-win situation and we’re looking forward to next season enormously.”
So amidst the cloud caused by senior relegation, Waterpark’s outstanding Under 20s and soon to be Under 21s, have provided the Ballinakill club with a badly needed silver lining. We wish them well for 2009/10.
For more details on the Waterpark Academy, contact Ben Cronin (087-2467470) or Gerry Walsh (086-8697731) or log onto www.waterparkrfc.com