20 May, 10:19
Irish Rugby TV spoke to Ireland interim head coach Les Kiss about the upcoming North America tour and his future within the management team.
Anyone who suggests there isn't any appetite for club rugby in Ireland anymore should take a look at Bruff RFC in Co. Limerick. Munster Junior League champions this year for the third time in four seasons, Bruff has since successfully negotiated the inter- provincial play-offs to qualify for the All-Ireland League (AIL) for the first time in its history.
With some fine performances under its belt since the 2004/05 league got underway, team management is cautious about blowing their own trumpet but quietly confident that they can mix with the best.
It's a faster pace than we're used to and one which calls for rapid decision making. I think the players have been a little nervous to start with, but there's plenty of time left and we believe we have the panel of players capable of not only surviving but competing at this level, according to club president David O'Keeffe.
There is a precedent for Bruff competing at this higher level, however. The club won the All-Ireland Under 20 league in 2000 (the only junior club to do so at the time; beating the likes of Lansdowne, Belfast Harlequins and UCC en route) and finished runners-up the following season.
The club was formed in 1970 after two teenagers cobbled together a team to face Newcastlewest in a challenge match. Both Nicholas Cooke and Willie Conway - who was a member of the Limerick hurling panel at the time - are still involved at board level at Bruff.
That probably wouldn't be possible nowadays. There was no compulsory insurance question then, so they'd have to come up with 1,900 before they did anything else now, O'Keeffe comments with a laugh.
That may sound very parochial, but it's not to say that Bruff is green around the edges in any way. In fact the club has now become one of the leading academies for players from Munster in the years since.
Munster and Ireland icon, John Hayes spent two years with Bruff in the early 1990s before moving to New Zealand and returning to Shannon, Munster and regular international status. He has since returned to the club this season.
Then there's Stephen Keogh, who has broken into the senior Munster side this season, figuring in its Celtic League campaign. The Garryowen captain, Peter Malone, also cut his teeth with Bruff. So too did current Shannon skipper Tom Hayes (younger brother of John).
That's the real importance of clubs like Bruff. If rural clubs didn't exist you may have guys like John Hayes slipping through the net, not getting the opportunity to learn the game. Hopefully now that we're in the AIL we'll be able to retain players. If they do move on it'll only be to further increase their profiles, not for monetary gain because there's not a whole lot of it about at club level, says O'Keeffe.
Bruff took the bold step ten years ago of becoming a totally voluntary club and enshrining in its constitution that players were not allowed to be paid for their services. As a result, the club is financially solvent and many other clubs, including many of the bigger ones, are taking a leaf out of Bruff's book.
Says O'Keeffe: There was a bit of opposition to it initially. People worried about what we might do if we badly needed a scrum-half, or whatever. But if we paid to bring in one new player, we'd have to pay all the players and we couldn't afford that. There have been junior clubs doing that in the past and it's only managed to get them into financial trouble.
The key to its success has been Bruff's strong management structure, which includes 30 fully-trained coaches, and its impressive underage set-up. Out of the club's 28-strong senior panel, only four players haven't come through its mini-rugby and junior teams.
Some 24 of the senior squad have been with Bruff RFC since the age of eight. Every age level, from eight to senior level, is represented. Overall, the club boasts around 300 underage players. Not bad for a town with a total population of just 900.
The nearest junior club is Charleville in Cork, all of 12 miles away. Bruff's membership and supporter base - the average home crowd for senior games is an impressive 400-500 - comes from a wide catchment area around south Limerick; towns like Herbertstown, Knocklong, Kilmallock and Ballingarry and the local communities. Needless to say, they are passionate about Bruff RFC and they too are credited with a large part of the effort that has gone into making the club successful.
The car park is full every weekend for junior training or matches. We lay on coffee and the Sunday papers for the parents. The family element is big here. We've 15 sets of brothers playing across our senior teams and 30 sets of brothers at underage level, O' Keeffe says.
It is also worth pointing out that another one of those towns in Bruff's catchment area is Bruree, birthplace of Eamon de Valera - one of whose maxims was that the game of rugby is best suited to the Irish temperament. It's a maxim that holds water in Bruff and every other village and town in throughout the county of Limerick.