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McHugh ‘Delighted To Get It Done’ As Mary’s Seal Return To Division 1A

McHugh ‘Delighted To Get It Done’ As Mary’s Seal Return To Division 1A

Try scorer Daniel Sancery is congratulated by his St. Mary's College team-mates, during their win over UCC earlier in the season ©John Crothers Sports Photography

Their long-awaited promotion back to Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 1A, with four games to spare, is certainly one to savour for all involved in St. Mary’s College RFC.

Laying the foundations across the first half of the season, St. Mary’s came into round 14 last weekend knowing that a win away to Highfield would wrap up the Division 1B title and end their six-year absence from the top flight.

It was a nervy affair at Woodleigh Park where Mick O’Gara’s coolly-struck late conversion earned a 10-9 victory for the south Dubliners. They had to come from nine points down after 49 minutes, with Steven Kilgallen’s crucial try definitely worth the wait.

It was St. Mary’s 13th win in 14 league matches this season, putting them on 65 points – a full 22 clear of second-placed Old Wesley, meaning they cannot be caught now as the AIL campaign moves into its final few weeks.

Mary’s head coach Mark McHugh, who took over from Sean Cronin in mid-season, was delighted to clinch promotion down in Cork, telling IrishRugby.ie: “We knew at the start of the year by looking at the other teams in the division that it was going to be really competitive.

“To get over the line with four games to spare is massively satisfying. The challenge for us now is to finish the season properly. The lads have that mindset that we have more business to take care of in those last four games.

“It’s really satisfying to get the job done this early, it’s only February. We never talked about winning the league this early but it was always a goal of ours to be there or there abouts come the end of the season. We’re delighted to get it done.”

McHugh brings plenty of knowledge and experience from his own playing days, having lined out with his native Leinster, and Connacht, before playing in France with Montpellier and Nice. He scored a try from full-back when winning his only Ireland cap, against Tonga in 2003.

One of his fondest rugby memories came in the 1999/00 All-Ireland League season when Mary’s became the first club from outside of Munster to be crowned Division 1 champions. Trevor Brennan was the captain while Brent Pope was the coach.

McHugh, the starting out-half from that historic final win over Lansdowne almost 24 years ago, has now won AIL silverware with the same club as a coach. He describes the feeling as somewhat different.

“That was a huge achievement for the club (back in 2000), that’s a day that sticks out in my mind as one of the most enjoyable times in my own rugby career.

I’ve done other things in my career, but from a club point of view that was a definite highlight. I used to love playing in front of a couple of thousand people in Templeville Road as a player.

“From a coaching perspective, I suppose you get a different level of satisfaction in doing it at a club where you once were a player. They’re different, I can’t say one is better than the other.

“Bringing the club back to 1A was something that we talked about at the start of the season. It was always at the forefront of our minds.”

McHugh joined the Mary’s management team as assistant coach this season before stepping up to the head coach role when Cronin took a new coaching opportunity with Munster Rugby. He was quick to praise Cronin for the club’s current success.

“I was lucky enough to take on a team that Sean built over the last couple of years. A lot of the credit for us winning the league this season is down to him and the work he put in.”

The playing squad, as a collective, is often praised in title-winning seasons, but there are always individuals who stand out during these successful periods for a club side.

Conor Hayes has been a huge addition to Mary’s attacking artillery, with the full-back scoring seven tries since joining from Young Munster last summer.

Out-half Conor Dean, who stood in as captain against Highfield, has been talismanic in big games, most notably kicking a match-winning drop goal in the last couple of minutes against Old Belvedere in round 12.

Winger Mark Fogarty was also branded as ‘the glue that holds everything together’ by his coach. Number 8 Ronan Watters has led by example as captain, while tighthead prop Mick McCormack has been a constant rock in the front row.

The great form of both Hayes and Dean has seen them included in Sean Skehan’s Ireland Club XV training squad ahead of their clash with Portugal ‘A’ in Lisbon on Friday, March 8.

“Hayes has been a brilliant addition both on and off the field in helping us drive standards,” noted McHugh. “In my view, ‘Deano’ is the best number 10 in amateur rugby in Ireland at the moment. He’s prenominal, he guides us around the pitch so well.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Ronan Watters (pictured below, bottom left). He’s a fantastic captain, a fabulous rugby player, and just a really great guy.”

Being a coach can be compared to signing yourself up for a seat in an always-moving rollercoaster. You can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

When things go right, you are the best in the world but when they go wrong, you are the first to get the blame. It is a high reward, but at times an unforgiving business.

McHugh left Lansdowne as head coach during the middle of last season, following some disappointing results. Reflecting on that time, he spoke about learning a lot from it and coming back after weighing up the amount of time and effort involved.

“Coaching has loads of ups and down, it’s just like a rugby match, a lot happens within those 80 minutes. It’s just like your career as a coach.

“You have to acknowledge that you’re not going to get every decision right or every selection right. You’re always trying to learn.

“It’s like Andy Farrell says, ‘the highs should never be too high, and the lows should never be too low’. Any time you’re winning rugby matches or league titles, you feel like you’re doing something right.

“It’s been a hugely satisfying season for me coming off the back of a disappointing finish with Lansdowne. You do question what you’re doing and if you’re cut out for it. You begin to wonder is it worth it.

“I have a wife and kids at home and even though it’s a part-time gig, you do spend a lot of time away from them. Moments like Saturday just make it all worthwhile, it makes me feel like I still have a bit more to give,” admitted the 45-year-old, who led Lansdowne to Energia Bateman Cup glory in 2022.

Despite already guaranteeing themselves a top-of-the-table finish and automatic promotion, Mary’s still have four league fixtures left to play and McHugh wants to see them finish the season with a flourish.

They host Naas and Old Wesley, with away trips to come, to Cork and Athlone, against UCC and Buccaneers respectively. Their coach believe the best is still yet to come.

“It’s nice to have thing wrapped up. We can probably play with a little bit more freedom in those final games. I’m hoping we see the best of this team in the last four games,” he added.