Following three promotions in just five seasons, Cork club Highfield are set for a major leap forward when they begin their Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B campaign against Malone at Woodleigh Park today (kick-off 2.30pm).
Considering they found themselves in the fourth tier of Irish club rugby as recently as April 2016, there might be a perception from the outside that the Leesiders, who are coached Tim Ryan, will struggle to scale the same heights as they did in previous years.
Club captain Fintan O’Sullivan is having none of it, insisting instead that Highfield have set themselves an ambitious target for the new campaign. “We feel like we’re there or thereabouts with most of them,” he said. “Banbridge, Armagh, Malone, Old Wesley, they all came from 2A. Lads come and go, but the guts of the team is probably still there.
“The last five years we got back-to-back promotions. Came second, came second and and came first last year. We’re not really used to just being mid-table. We’re kinda thinking top-four, minimum. I know a lot of people don’t back us. We always back ourselves, which is the main thing. Everyone keeps telling us that it’s a big step and all this crack, but I think we’re ready for it.”
It certainly helps that Highfield have retained with the nucleus of the 2018/19 squad, which finished 10 points clear of Cashel as they were crowned claiming Division 2A champions. Thanks in no small part to a thriving underage section, the standards in training are increasing exponentially with each passing season.
“We got a big influx last year, about 10 players,” explained O’Sullivan. “We’ve held onto all of them, barring two who moved to Dublin. I think we got a prop, two scrum halves and it’s pretty much the same team after that. What we did i we got a load of young lads.
“Now we’ve got a pretty strong Under-20 team. We’ve 40 lads training now, which is great. We get to run two teams against each other. Brought in a strength and conditioning coach. I think we’re doing all the right things to get us (where we need to be).”
Navigating Highfield’s joruney through the domestic ranks has been player-coach Ryan, one of three brothers who have enjoyed a professional career in the game. Ryan first came to prominence at his native Munster, and while opportunities were limited thanks to the presence of John Hayes and Tony Buckley, he featured for the province in their narrow defeat to New Zealand in November 2008 at Thomond Park.
His performance impressed then-Toulon head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who brought him to France for the 2009/10 Top 14 campaign. Subsequent spells followed at Newcastle Falcons, Cavalieri Prato and the Newport Gwent Dragons, before he eventually returned home in 2014.
With his time in the professional game coming to an end, an opportunity at Woodleigh Park – where he started out as an underage prodigy – presented itself. As O’Sullivan explains, Ryan has not looked back since.
“We had a coach who left and I think Tim was 30, 31. He was kinda falling out of the professional scene. I think someone approached him, ‘would you have any interest in coaching as player-coach?’. He came out from being a tighthead with the Dragons to playing number 8 for us! I’d say a couple of teams were going, ‘oh no’.
“Even now, he’s 35. He’s older and he’s not in as good a shape and all that, but he still plays and he’s one of the best players on the pitch. He’s just one of these guys that has it. He’s been brilliant for the club really. He’ll have a legacy there for sure, which is good.”
Although Cork Constitution have consistently flown the flag for the county in the upper echelons of the league, they are now receiving some much-needed competition on that front. UCC retained their Division 1A status courtesy of a play-off victory over Old Wesley, with Highfield now just a single division below their big city rivals.
Despite their recent frustrations, Dolphin will hope to replicate Highfield as they kick-start their own bid for Division 2A supremacy. Sunday’s Well and Midleton complete the list of Cork clubs at the senior grade, which second row O’Sullivan believes can only bode well for the future.
“Dolphin have taken a slip in the last couple of years, but they’ll be fine. There’s six senior clubs in Cork, which is good going. Classically, even when I was 16, 17, I remember going to Con and Dolphin down in Musgrave Park. That’s the game, there’s no one else. Now you’re going down to the Mardyke and watching Con and UCC.
“People are coming to watch Highfield and Con or UCC, because we’re there or thereabouts. We went from the bottom of senior rugby and we’re almost there now. We’re just keeping the head down and ploughing on in the meantime.”
Before Highfield can worry about the prospect of a local league derby with Con or UCC, they need to negotiate a successful path through the second tier. Given Malone narrowly pipped them to promotion at the end of the 2017/18 term, they will be determined to get one over on Chris Henry’s men today.
“Malone is our first fixture at home. We’re looking forward to that as well. We’ve met them a few times before. Should be interesting, to say the least,” added O’Sullivan.