Matthew Earley carries a lot of responsibly on his young shoulders. The 22-year-old has been promoted to captain the Sligo senior team after spending the last couple of seasons as vice-captain within their leadership group.
The Leitrim village native is no stranger to leading out teams. He captained his school team, Sligo Grammar School, while also skippering his Gaelic football teams at both club and county level. It is a role he takes in his stride.
“I suppose I’ve always been a leader,” he told IrishRugby.ie. “I captained my school team and then my club at home (Carrick Rugby Club), and my GAA club at home, and I’ve captained Leitrim on occasion as well.
“But it was probably a bit of a shock to become a leader of a senior All-Ireland League squad, especially the first time I was made co-captain at the age of 20, I was like third youngest on the team.
“That was definitely a huge learning curve. I feel like one of the ‘old fellas’ in the team now, even though I’m only 22. It’s my third year in that sort of leadership role.”
Sligo are coming into the new Energia All-Ireland League campaign on the back of an impressive early season spell, which saw them pick up only their second ever Connacht Senior League title after a 49-17 win over Buccaneers just two weeks ago.
They will welcome Division 1A giants and reigning champions Terenure College to Hamilton Park for a mouth-watering Energia Bateman Cup semi-final on Saturday (kick-off 2.30pm).
The Strandhill venue has become a fortress for Paddy Pearson’s Sligo outfit, making it a challenging atmosphere to experience and a tricky place to go for visiting teams. Earley knows they will have to rely heavily on that home support if they are to get some big wins this season.
“It’s massively important,” admitted the former Connacht underage hooker. “Even in 2023 alone we haven’t lost a game at home, it’s been massive, especially coming towards the end of the last season.
Last season we were pushing for the play-offs (in Division 2B), we had that last game at home against Belfast Harlequins. They are always a good side, but we always back ourselves at home (and we won 40-7 to make the top four).
“Even Terenure this weekend, the number one team in the country, last year they won it all. They’re the cream of the crop, but at the end of the day we’re going to back ourselves and when we have that home support, we are hard to beat.”
The powerful front rower has a busy life off the field. He recently graduated with a Civil Engineering degree, and has now started his Masters in the University of Galway. He will have to juggle his new commitments as captain alongside the demands of his studies.
Like many clubs at this time of year there has been plenty of comings and goings at Sligo RFC. Last season’s captain, Jason East, has left the club, as well as the likes of Ross Hickey and former Ireland Under-20 international Donnacha Byrne, who has moved to Garryowen since returning from his travels playing in both Brazil and Australia.
Sligo’s Kiwi head coach Pearson has added some new talent to their ranks in fellow New Zealander Ethan Faitaua who impressed at outside centre during the Connacht Senior League. Second row Gary Duffy has made the switch from Galwegians.
At the start of every season, each team has their own definitions of success, their own goals, and realistic targets. In the AIL most of the clubs in the lower divisions are striving for promotion, but the league’s competitive nature makes it both interesting to watch and difficult to achieve.
It is a long league season from October through to late April, and Earley firmly believes you have to approach it game by game, week by week, and not get too far ahead of yourself.
“I think that’s maybe a mistake we made in the last couple of years, looking nine months down the line and not concentrating on the here and now.
“Obviously, we will be disappointed if we don’t get promoted or win a Connacht cup and those sorts of things this year, but I don’t think it’s beneficial to be looking at those now. Take them as they come.
The wise-beyond-his-years captain says his team need to learn from past experiences, adding: “Two years ago, we had a great start to the season, we were second in the table and we ended up finishing sixth.
“Last year we were floating in and around that sixth/seventh position again and we managed to scrape into the play-offs. We lost the Connacht league in the last play of the game, Connacht cup by a score, play-offs by a score.
“I think taking it a game at a time will help us to make sure we are in the best possible position to win those games and not be scrambling for those play-off positions come the end of the season.”