The stars of the future will be on show at Naas RFC this Sunday (3pm) with a keenly-contested battle in prospect as defending champions Wicklow and Cork outfit Highfield go head-to-head to decide the destination of the Under-18 All-Ireland title.
Wicklow, have invested strongly in their underage section in the past decade and through their coach Mick Higgins and his assistants Frank Robertson and Larry Byrne – all of whom won Leinster Senior League titles in 2001 and 2002 – they have made impressive inroads.
Higgins has been involved with the Wicklow underage set-up since 1999 and a trio of those talented Under-8s provide the backbone for Sunday’s team with his son Denis, Charlie Butterworth and Ben Doyle having come through the ranks.
While Wicklow will enter this game as favourites, having taken All-Ireland wins in the previous two years at U-16 and U-18 level, their coach says that expectations were not particularly high this year.
“We weren’t over expectant at the start of the year because we lost some of our better players from last year. So we started with pretty much a clean slate,” Higgins said.
“Although of late, it (retaining the title) has started to be mentioned more and more. We have had some hard games along the way and we know it’s a 50/50 battle on Sunday and that’s the way we are approaching it.”
Second row Niall Hardy will captain Wicklow this weekend and is one of 12 players who remain from last year’s squad of 28.
Eddie Downes recently lined out for the Ireland Under-18 Clubs side following in the footsteps of Ben Doyle and Niall Earls, both of whom were on International duty last year.
The progress of these players is not something which has come overnight with the club possessing a very strong underage structure.
Great inroads are also being made at schools level according to the Wicklow coach.
“We have three schools in Wicklow town – East Glendalough, Abbey Community College and De La Salle – and great progress has been made there in the last three years.
“Rugby has certainly become more popular and we now have 300 youths in the club.”
In Cork, Highfield is equally a hive of underage activity where a similar amount of youths take to the pitches each Saturday morning from Under-8 up to Under-18 level, under the guidance of underage Chairman John O’Hea.
Ger Stack is heavily involved as manager of their Under-18 side and he is hoping that Highfield’s consistent performances can carry them through to their first All-Ireland title at this level.
“We’ve been pretty consistent all season actually. We went through our league unbeaten and the local cup here – the South Munster, we are in the final of that as well,” Stack explained.
“They’ve been pretty consistent right through the season and there has been a good balance between the backs and forwards.”
Kevin O’Byrne, Graham Coughlan and Lloyd Dorgan are among those in the current squad who have represented Munster at Youth level, but this Highfield outfit is a well balanced crop according to their manager.
“It’s a fairly balanced side. James Cronin and Paddy Ryan are very strong in the front row.
“We have a very good back row. The three lads who will be playing on Sunday…Kevin O’Byrne is a quality player (at number 8), Marc Murphy and John McLoughlin, they are exceptional. Very, very mobile and very good ball carriers.”
Both sides have shown great resilience this year. Wicklow came from behind in their games against Dundalk and Mullingar in Leinster, having previously recorded wins over Enniscorthy and Barnhall and then once again in their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Ballynahinch.
Stack believes that the Munster final against Abbeyfeale was the real turning point in Highfield’s campaign.
“We went away to Abbeyfeale for the final of Munster and they were very strong. They had a very strong pack and they really put it up to us.
“It was an away game in not great conditions which would have suited the local team better, but our lads dug in and came away with a very good win. I think that was probably a day where they showed great character.”
Stack says that there is a great atmosphere in the club, especially since the Munster triumph when the squad learned that they were following in the footsteps of Ireland Grand Slam hero Donncha O’Callaghan by taking provincial glory.
“There is a huge buzz in the club. When we won the Munster section of the All-Ireland Cup, we found out that Donncha O’Callaghan, who played underage here with us, had been on the Highfield team that won that cup in 1995.
“So it was fantastic to be able to bring that cup into the dressing room to the lads and say this is a guy whose footsteps you are following. Donncha would have played underage with us up to 18 as well.
“It’s given the whole club a great lift and there is a great optimism that a certain number of these lads will obviously go through and play senior with the club and go on to better things again.”
It all adds up for a thrilling encounter on Sunday with a large crowd expected at the north Kildare venue. Kick-off is at 3pm and directions to Naas RFC are available here.