106 years of Enniscorthy rugby history in 13 minutes
5 MIN READ
2 points. 2 teams. 13 minutes left.
There were just 2 points separating Enniscorthy and Tullow with 13 minutes left to play in the 2018 Provincial Towns Cup final.
Enniscorthy had been 15-0 up. Tullow came back at them with 13 unanswered points. 6 of them when Tullow were down to 14 men.
The breeze was at Enniscorthy backs in the first half. Now it was against them.
Enniscorthy had won the Towns Cup 7 times before. Tullow had won it for the first time in 2017.
The next 13 minutes seemed to contain the 106-year history of Enniscorthy RFC and the history of rugby in Ireland.
‘Let’s form a rugby club’
Legend has it that Enniscorthy RFC was formed in 1912 when Bertie Ennis, Tony Furlong and Charlie Lett met in the co-op yard and declared ‘let’s form a rugby club’.
Perhaps Enniscorthy isn’t as old as clubs like Dublin University, founded in 1854, but 106 years of history (and 8 Towns Cups) is no small achievement.
The new club held its first ‘practice’ in Rectory Fields on 14 November 1912 and played their first ever match a couple of weeks later against Wexford.
A report in ‘The People’ at the time said, ‘their display was of such a superior character as to compel unstinted admiration…’ and ‘…had the forwards been better acquainted with one another, a resounding defeat would have unquestionably been inflicted on the visitors.’
First to win the re-named Provincial Towns Cup in 1926
The Enniscorthy players got better acquainted. ‘Resounding defeats’ of opposing sides duly followed.
And, by the mid 1920s, the club had won the Leinster Junior Challenge Cup twice, in 1923 and 1924 and, in 1925, when it was re-named Provincial Towns Cup. Enniscorthy beat Co. Kildare (Naas) 6-0.
They won the cup again the following year then again in 1934.
Fathers, sons, grandsons, great-grandsons
‘We pride ourselves in being an Enniscorthy club,’ Charlie Kavanagh, who played for the club as a youngster and as an adult, tells me.
The involvement of prominent local families stretches right back to the club’s foundation and the same surnames echo through the years. Charlie’s cousin, for example, also called Charlie Kavanagh was club president when the they won the cup in 2012 their centenary year
‘At the moment,’ says George Copeland who first played for Enniscorthy in 1952, ‘we’ve lads on our team from two families whose great-grandfathers played for the club. There’s a certain pride in that.’
Charlie, George and Jack Lett were part of the team that won the 1926 Towns Cup final and the first of many from the Lett family to play for the club. George’s sons were in the team that won the 1963 Towns Cup. Great-grandson, Killian Lett, was on the pitch in the 2018 Towns Cup final.
George has a faded black and white photo of the 1928 side in front of him. ‘That man,’ he points out a player in the team, ‘Paddy Bolger, he also has two great-grandsons playing for the team at the moment.’
The days when just getting to away fixtures was an adventure
Pat Kelly was one of three generations of Kelly brothers to play for Enniscorthy. One of his earliest memories of rugby, recorded in the club’s centenary book, was the away match.
Pat’s uncle Sam had a green, Thames van which his father would borrow to get them to away fixtures. Pat, his father, his Mam, his siblings, and various assorted players would pile into the van and set off into the wilds for far-away Carlow, Athy and Tullamore.
While the trip to the away fixture was uneventful (punctures aside), Pat recalls the return journey taking far longer as those on board the van took advantage of it. ‘The men would stop off visiting aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, distant cousins and anyone else they knew for that matter.’
Fighting to keep the club going
Despite success on the pitch, like many Irish rugby clubs, Enniscorthy still had to fight to stay alive.
The club lost players after both World Wars and when they came to recruit new players they came up against the 1905 GAA ban which forbade any member of the GAA from taking part in or watching ‘foreign’ games.
‘The big challenge back then was simply to get players because of the GAA ban,’ says George Copeland.
‘We were lucky to get 15 players together, and as often as not we played with 12 or 13,’ says George.
He recalls that one of the more dedicated recruiters in the 1950s, a man called Stanley Binions, was ‘an AA man with a motorbike and sidecar’ at a time when few people had cars.
‘He spent his time on his bike going round all the farms and business recruiting lads for the game.’ The game had men like Stanley all over Ireland searching hard to find new players for clubs and getting existing players to rugby training and matches.
1971, the year the GAA ban was lifted
Charlie Kavanagh was captain and playing in the front row the year that the GAA ban was lifted.
‘I remember the days of being ridiculed for playing rugby,’ he says. ‘After the ban was lifted, gradually people started to come along to the club and play.’
‘It was lean times in the 70s and 80s but we’ve come a long way. Now there are guys playing rugby in the team that never saw a rugby ball growing up.’
‘The current team gives you an idea of how much things have changed,’ Jim McCauley tells me, ‘Nick Doyle plays county football, Jack Kelly and our captain, Tom Ryan, both play hurling and Tom’s brother, Liam, is full back on the Wexford hurling team.’
Today, the relationship with the local GAA is much closer. So much so that Charlie Kavanagh points out that the club’s defeat by Wicklow RFC in September coincided with players being unavailable at the end of the GAA season.
The strip that shrank, the Juniors that grew
After winning the Town’s Cup in ’26, ’27 and ’34, Enniscorthy had to wait 29 years until 1963 to win it again then had to wait another 26 years before winning it again in ’89.
In the meantime, Bill Lett started a Youth Section in 1966 and was joined by David Hasslacher a year later. Junior rugby was in its infancy across Ireland at that time.
As David recalls, ‘we had no strip, no clubhouse, no showers and no organised fixtures.’ But that didn’t stop Bill and David. A Junior Club was duly formed and the boys themselves decided to organise dances to raise money for a strip.
They went ahead and raised the money and the strip was ordered for the players from Reid’s. ‘We didn’t know the correct number of sizes we needed,’ David explains, ‘so we got a mixture of small, medium and large just to be sure.’
David remembers the pride the young lads had when they walked out to play rugby with their strips on for the first time.
‘The only down side,’ he admits, ‘was when they were taken home and washed. When the lads put them on the next time they discovered they had shrunk by about three sizes!’
Home-grown rugby talent of all ages
The club now prides itself in being family-friendly and caters for players of all ages. The Minis training on Sunday at 10:30am draws a huge number of enthusiastic players and is coordinated by David Bolger.
Women’s rugby has seen a huge increase in interest recently and the girls Under-16 and Under-18 teams, managed by Myra Kelly and Veronica Nolan, won Leinster titles for the first time in 2017.
A number of today’s first team have come through the U-16 and U-18 set ups and Enniscorthy vigorously encourage and retain home-grown talent wherever they discover it and at whatever age.
Paddy Waters is a good example.
‘Paddy was using a gym across town,’ says David Wrafter. ‘He was 28 when he started playing rugby. Hadn’t played a game before then. We brought him on as a sub in the 2012 final and he’s been our tight head ever since.’
Paddy lifted the Towns Cup trophy with captain Ivan Poole in 2018.
‘If my great-grandfather did it, why can’t I?’
‘It’s nice to see how seriously the amateur players today take the game,’ says David Hasslacher who recalls the days when Morrissey’s, a fish and chip shop in Enniscorthy, had a deal with the club for visiting teams ‘and we got sausage and chips for 1 and sixpence.’
Training, diet and tactics have developed over the past 106 years but there are still close links with the 1912 founders in today’s Enniscorthy RFC.
‘Tradition is important,’ says George. ‘Lads who can look back and say ‘if my great-grandfather did it, why can’t I?’
The last 13 minutes
Back to the 2018 final.
13 minutes left. 2 points in it. The next score would likely win the Town’s Cup final 2018 an 8th time for Enniscorthy or a second time for the holders Tullow.
With 8 minutes left, Paddy Waters made some ground for Enniscorthy then Arthur Dunne found Nick Doyle who beat the Tullow defence to cross the line for a try.
Although Tullow threw everything at Enniscorthy in the dying minutes, the Enniscorthy defence stood firm and the team won 20-13.
Fittingly it was an 8 who scored the final points of the match winning the 8th Towns Cup for Enniscorthy.
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