If the Tuam/Oughterard Colts go on to win the Energia All-Ireland Women’s Junior Cup on Saturday, it would complete another incredible chapter in what has been a fairytale beginning for a senior team that was only formed at the start of last season.
They have a tough task ahead of them, facing defending Junior Cup champions MU Barnhall at Mullingar RFC (kick-off 2pm). They defeated Skibbereen (45-7) and UL Bohemians 2nds (38-12) to become the first Connacht representatives to reach the final.
The Tuam/Oughterard Colts, which is an amalgamation of players from Tuam RFC, Oughterard RFC, and Claremorris Colts RFC, took the west by storm, winning a Connacht Women’s League title in their first season.
Their captain, Sarah-Jane Fox, has battled through many dark days in the sport. With her injury woes well and truly behind her, she is dreaming of lifting the All-Ireland Junior Cup this weekend.
“It would mean the world to me, if I’m completely honest with you. It’s the stuff of dreams for me,” Fox told IrishRugby.ie, when asked about potentially leading her young team to a national trophy.
“To have gone through all the hardships, with my struggles with different injuries, from training on the wet, damp, and mucky nights, it would make everything worth it.
“It would be the cherry on top of a great season for us. The girls have put the work in, pulled up their socks, put the heads down, and put their hearts into it. They have pride in that jersey that they wear.
“For most of them to go from Under-14 (level) to now, to this pinnacle moment, a chance to put themselves on top of the pyramid. If we win, it would be unbelievable.”
Most rugby clubs can trace the roots of their senior successes back to their age-grade programmes and the building blocks that were put in place through the various levels. This has proved true for this fresh of talented group of Tuam/Oughterard players.
Coached by Owen Lydon and Norman Tierney, their senior team grew from their underage players turning 18. Eager to continue their rugby journey together, they made the decision to create a senior team, primarily made up of that crop of players.
They now have a thriving underage system, with the Under-14, Under-16 and Under-18s bring the club’s total number of teams to four. This was not always the case.
Everything changed at a blitz back in 2015 at Garraun Park where friends and former Tuam team-mates, Lydon and Tierney, had brought two U-13 girls teams along to play, representing Tuam and Oughterard respectively.
Neither team had enough numbers to field a full side, so they combined them to make up the first ever Tuam/Oughterard team. The decision transformed girls rugby in both areas, starting an incredible journey and a real labour of love for all involved.
Fox spoke about the influence that both men have had on the club’s exciting rise, saying: “The two of them joined forces on that particular day at the blitz. They have put their heart and their soul into this.
“Even tonight (Thursday), they’re both at a semi-final with the Under-18s, while trying to get us ready for the game on Saturday. They never stop. Their entire extracurricular life revolves around us.
They’re the reason we want to play as well as we do because they’ve put everything into this. Investing in your youth is the most important thing you can do for any club.
“The fact that the two coaches stepped up and decided to go to that blitz event though they didn’t have the numbers, they just wanted to give the girls the opportunity to participate in rugby and reap the rewards that it gives you – not just on the field but in life.
“It was great that they came together and joined the teams up, giving the girls the best possible experience and chance, to now where many of them are going to be playing in an All-Ireland final. It’s brilliant.”
They have some real gems involved with the current Colts team. Natasha Deacy has impressed in the back-line, while two of last season’s Ireland Under-18 players, Beibhinn Gleeson and Hannah Clarke (pictured below), have also been standout performers.
Gleeson and Clarke, who has scored five tries so far in this season’s All-Ireland Junior Cup, are two of the most promising young players in Irish Women’s rugby. Their captain is full of admiration for the pair.
“Beibhinn has been a standout. It’s her first year at senior level and you’d think she’s been playing at this level for years.
“Then you’ve got Hannah, she’s exceptional. She’s still in school, studying for her Leaving Cert. She’s got lots going on, but she always puts in 110%.”
Fox, unlike many in the squad, brings plenty of experience to the table. A journey filled with highs and lows. From making her senior debut with Connacht at a young age, playing in the All-Ireland League with Galwegians, before suffering back-to-back ACL injuries that almost ended her rugby career.
It has been a tough road for her to get to this point, but since she started playing with the new team, when it first began back in 2022, she has had a clean bit of health. Enjoying her rugby again, winning silverware, with the desire to claim more on Saturday.
“That second ACL injury knocked me. It hit home to me that you can be as best-prepared as you want in life but sometimes things don’t work out the way you want. These things just happen.
“I went back to soccer first as I was a bit apprehensive to go back to rugby straight away. I helped with a few Connacht Rugby summer camps in 2022. Going to different clubs and teaching kids about rugby.
“It sparked back my love for rugby. I knew I had to get back playing. When I heard the lads had a senior team I was sold. That was it for me. I had to get back playing. I haven’t looked back, I’m loving life,” she added.