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‘We’ve A Young Group That Is Growing Together’ – Corinthians’ Harding

‘We’ve A Young Group That Is Growing Together’ – Corinthians’ Harding

Back rower Max Flynn, one of Galway Corinthians' homegrown talents, is pictured in action against Instonians during this season's Energia All-Ireland League Men's Division 2B campaign ©Joanne Glynn Cullen

Galway Corinthians have grasped the opportunity to bring JJ Hanrahan on board as their new backs coach, with the Connacht out-half not set to be back playing for the province until early next year.

Hanrahan, who started 14 of the 19 games he played during his debut season in Galway, suffered an ACL injury during Connacht’s win over the Dragons in late April, forcing him to miss the business end of the campaign.

He underwent surgery last month, and the westerners’ head coach Pete Wilkins said they will still be ‘tapping into his knowledge and leadership rugby-wise while he’s out’.

Corinthians will be doing likewise after moving quickly to add Hanrahan to their coaching ticket for next season. It will be a big year for the Galway city club who are back in Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 2A for the first time since 2018.

Explaining how the appointment came about, Corinthians director of rugby and head coach Michael Harding told IrishRugby.ie: “Simon Gillespie, our backs coach for our AIL team, had stepped down after three seasons. We advertised the job and got in many CVs.

“But Pat Cunningham, our forwards coach, suggested over a lunch with a few club members one day that we should reach out to JJ as he might be looking to do something different while rehabbing his knee.

“After a few calls and meetings with JJ, he was very interested in taking the job and we were very excited by the wealth of experience he will bring, and vast knowledge he has on the game.

“Having spoken to people in Connacht about JJ they have told us that his one of the best on-pitch coaches they have had in years. The coaching ticket remains unchanged otherwise, with our 1sts, 2nds, and Under-20s all training as one big group.”

In Harding’s second season in charge, Corinthians finished second behind Instonians in Division 2B before beating Wanderers and UL Bohemian in the play-offs. They had an average score of 30.2 points from 20 games, and the best defensive record in their division.

With Harding running his own performance analysis company called PPA, Corinthians already have a high attention to detail, but Hanrahan’s rugby nous – honed in a number of different professional set-ups – should help their attack to raise the bar even further.

“This is JJ’s first time coaching, he has said that it’s not with an eye to the next thing after playing. He is very focused on getting back in the green jersey by January,” acknowledged Harding.

“We believe JJ will bring insight into our overall attack shape and our launch plays. He’s spoken about how much detail he goes into reviewing and previewing games – this is a big part of what Corinthians do too, so JJ will add great value here.

“His eye for detail so far has been very impressive when discussing our play-off wins from this season against Wanderers and Bohs, which he has already reviewed.”

A former player with Nenagh Ormond and Portumna, Harding had coaching spells with Portumna, Buccaneers, Cistercian College Roscrea, and Creggs, where he was assistant to Cunningham, before joining JP Cooney’s coaching team at Corinthians in 2020 as assistant coach and performance analyst.

The Terryglass man took over as head coach at Cloonacauneen in July 2022, driving the hard work and high standards at U-20 and senior level that have underpinned their recent success. He was honoured as the Connacht Coach of the Year last month.

Achieving promotion for the club meant even more given how the Corinthians club members and local community had rallied around Harding after the tragic loss of his sister Elaine earlier in the year.

“Winning the Connacht award was a lovely way to finish off a very enjoyable and successful season on the pitch for me with the promotion, getting to work with the Ireland Club XV (as performance analyst), and being appointed Connacht Under-19 head coach too.

“I say on the pitch because off the pitch it’s been a very difficult few months. Elaine passed away very suddenly in January. The support and help I’ve received from Corinthians is incredible. My family was blown away by how many people from the club travelled out to Tipperary for Elaine’s funeral.

“It’s one of the many things I love about team sport is how you are surrounded by supportive people, and how the dressing room and pitch provide the escape for a few hours from the tough times that life throws at you.”

The 35-year-old was no doubt thinking of his dear sister soon after the final whistle at Annacotty when Corinthians beat UL 35-21 to clinch promotion in some style.

Recalling that momentous day of the play-off final, he admitted: “Seeing all our supporters on the pitch and sharing that time with them after we beat Bohs is something I’ll cherish for a long time. Two years of incredible hard work went into that win from so many people in the club.”

2023/24 will certainly go down as one of Corinthians’ best ever seasons, with Connacht Academy centre John Devine also winning the Division 2B Player of the Year award, and their Under-20 side making history by lifting the JP Fanagan Premier 2 trophy and competing in Leinster’s McCorry Cup.

The likes of Devine and other Academy players like Tomás Farthing and Fiachna Barrett, and Sean Naughton and Max Flynn, who are both part of Ireland’s World Under-20 Rugby Championship squad, have gained a good amount of All-Ireland League experience under Harding.

He said that the club’s relationship with Connacht and the Academy through Eric Elwood has been ‘very strong’ these last two seasons, and that they feel when the players are released to them that they are ‘providing a very good platform and environment for the players to go out and play their best rugby’.

As for next season, Corinthians’ return to Division 2A is already drawing plenty of attention and excitement, especially with two Connacht derbies to come against Buccaneers, and three trips north to Banbridge, Ballymena, and Instonians, their promotion rivals from 2023/24.

“Our goal for next season is to push for the play-offs again,” added Harding. “Our retention rate has been very good so far and this is why we think we can try and push for fourth or above in Division 2A.

“We know there will be a step up physically and in speed of play, but this is a young group that is growing together and we think we have the talent and attitude to push on again.”

– Galway Corinthians photos provided by Joanne Glynn Cullen