Twelve months ago Highfield slipped to the Junior ranks after defeat by Connemara in a play off. Now, having won the Munster Junior One League they’re back with a shot of regaining AIL status.
After their defeat to the Connemara All-Blacks last season that saw them slip through the trapdoor to Junior rugby, Highfield Rugby Club has been busy ever since, rebuilding broken spirits and shattered pride, and now are close to reclaiming their place amongst the elite of club rugby for next
season in the All-Ireland league.
Highfield began the year with a loss to Junior 2 side Abbeyfeale in a Cup competition, but since then, went on an unbeaten league run that has seen them win the Munster Junior League, and now with the lottery of a round robin series, are vying for automatic promotion back to the AIL.
The Woodleigh Park side will find this process all the more daunting now, having lost their first round-robin game to Kilkenny, a team where
former Irish number 8 Willie Duggan is a key figure in the marble city’s coaching staff.
But to even get to the position as round-robin candidates, Highfield had to
travel to the four corners of Munster to gather those precious league points. And according to Club captain Mark O’ Connell, the players found it difficult to adjust to the nuances of junior rugby. And the opposition was only waiting eagerly to take a huge scalp.
“We were the big fish in the
small pond and every team that we played was their Cup final. We found that every game was a huge encounter, not just for them, but also for us. I don’t want to insult the clubs we played, but I think they played above themselves when they played us. They gave a 150 percent, which made us better players by the way. It made a bond between the players.”
“But on the other hand we made a lot of new friends in places we’ve never played in before.”
Highfield’s fall from grace was a huge blow to this once proud senior club who were up there with local rivals Cork Constitution in the not too distant past, but when the game turned professional, many players were enticed to the bigger senior clubs in the province and left the Model Farm Road side
scraping for talent. Their quick descent from the heights of senior rugby quickened.
However, they have adopted a totally professional approach since relegation from AIL Division Three became reality last May, and thanks to the services of Welsh trio Phil Rees (coach), Gethin Lewis (manager) and forwards coach and former Newport stalwart Steve Forde, the healing process to restore lost pride began in earnest.
Phil Rees’ approach has been ultra-professional since the beginning of last summer. And the commitment displayed by the players has been nothing short of spectacular.
“This year we are an upbeat, talkative team. We’ve silenced the knockers that have upset this club over the years. We set out our stall last year to go up to the round-robin and back to the AIL and anything other than that is a failure.”
And though losing the opening game to Kilkenny was a huge blow to their ambitions, this weekend’s home game to Westport should give the club a fresh impetus for the away game to Queens on the 20th of April.
“We may be a little down after the first game of this round robin but we’ve got to regroup and focus on Westport now.”
The road to where they are has been long and winding and some of their experiences along the way will never be forgotten by coaches, players and their consistently loyal support, both at home and away games. O’ Connell sheds light on a season of relative success.
“Our home gates have always reached a thousand and from the very kick-off of the season we had huge crowds up here before they ever realised we were going to win or lose in the Munster Junior league.”
Their first game seemed to have been wrapped up well in to the second half, but Highfield’s usually tight defence, which has conceded few tries this season, let two late ones through the net against Kilkenny.
It should be different this weekend as Westport suffered a heavy defeat to Queens and Highfield are hungry to put the nightmare of Kilkenny quickly behind them.
Verdict: Highfield win.