There are many major events in the coming months involving Portlaoise RFC that will bring excitement to the Midlands area, and one such occasion will take place on Saturday April 13th in their home grounds of Togher. This event is the IRFU AVIVA All-Ireland Under 10 Mini Festival, which consists of 20 or more Under 10 mini rugby sides from all four provinces of Ireland.
This acts as an excellent showcase for the future stars of rugby in Ireland, and it is worthwhile for anyone with an interest in this aspect of the game to keep this date free in their calendar.
Just a week later, Portlaoise will also act as hosts for the Leinster Women’s Rugby Cup Finals, which should provide plenty of excitement, with the day's action commencing at 1pm, when the Shield Final takes place, followed swiftly by the Plate decider at 1.30pm.
Later on at 2pm, the Cusack Cup Final will be featured on the Laois outfit's home turf, before the Paul Flood Cup Final at 2.30pm brings the curtain down on what should prove to be a fine afternoon of rugby. The day will also take the form of a Ladies Day (an increasingly popular concept for clubs around the country), and there will be various stalls set-up in the grounds by local business owners. Those with an interest in booking a stall can contact John Brennan on 087-2536160 or Harry Nicholls on 087-6179990.
However, perhaps the most exciting event for Portlaoise RFC will occur at the very beginning of April, when they take their place in the All-Ireland Plate Final on Saturday the 6th. This will help to bring the curtain down on a terrific season for the Portlaoise ladies, as they already have two pieces of silverware under their belt, and will be extremely hopeful of achieving a treble success.
Their most significant milestone of 2012/13 came at the end of November, when they sealed the All-Ireland Division 2 crown with a battle-hardened performance against Queens University in Ashbourne. Portlaoise had produced a very impressive opening half of rugby against their Ulster rivals, and even though Queens made a gallant attempt to force the tie in their direction, Portlaoise eventually secured a 15-12 triumph.
Before taking to the field for one of their key games of 2013, the Portlaoise Ladies held a social event to help raise money for their Player Injury Fund. Taking place on Thursday March 28th, the team hosted a table quiz and raffle in Grellan Delaney's & Sons in an effort to raise money to fund player expenses, physio supplies and investment in an injury prevention program.
The ladies team in Portlaoise has suffered a number of injuries throughout the campaign, and this evening (along with a number of other gatherings) will help to provide the ladies section in the club with the resources that they need.
The activity at Togher will extend beyond the regular league season, as Portlaoise will be hosting the Evening Herald Leinster Rugby Summer Camp in their grounds from Monday July 22nd until Friday July 26th. This camp is designed for girls and boys between the ages of 6 and 12, and is being organised by the Leinster Branch, with all the coaches on duty being properly qualified and accredited personnel.
Current members of the Leinster squad will be in attendance during the week of the camp, which makes the venture extremely worthwhile for interested kids and parents. Registration for the camp currently stands at €89 per child for the first child, and €80 for subsequent children. However, it is also possible to avail of an early bird offer, which is priced at €70, saving people a substantial €19 provided they register before 1st June 2013.
Registration forms for this camp are available from Portlaoise Rugby Club, although you can alternatively register on line through the Leinster Rugby website: leinsterrugby.ie. Those who are booking through the club can do so on Saturday mornings.
St Patrick's Day is always a special day for all those with a connection to the island of Ireland, but March 17th 2013 will have even greater resonance for Philip Doyle and his Ireland Women's Rugby squad, who secured their first-ever Grand Slam/Women's Six Nations crown with a dogged 6-3 victory over Italy in the Venegoni Stadium.
Key to their success in 2013 has been Portlaoise club member Alison Miller, who has made a massive impression for the Green Army from her left-wing posting.
Incredibly, the Italian game was only Miller's sixth cap in a green jersey, but in her limited time operating at international level, she has made an extraordinary impact. The narrow 12-10 opening day triumph over Wales at Talbot Athletic Grounds was only her second game in an Irish shirt, but she truly rose to prominence in the first home fixture of the campaign, when her magnificent hat-trick of tries sealed a shock 25-0 success over red-hot favourites England.
This put Ireland in pole position to achieve a first-ever Triple Crown when they faced Scotland in Lasswade on Saturday February 23rd, and Miller was once again the star of the show, as her brace of five-pointers helped Ireland to record the win that they craved.
Having started the competition hoping to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, these three excellent performances put Ireland in a dream position, and even though Ireland were pushed all the way by France in Ashbourne at the beginning of March, another fine display by Miller & Co. ensured that they came out on the right side of a 15-10 score line.
This set things up for a grand finale against the Azzurri, and although it was a titanic battle in treacherous weather conditions, Doyle's charges managed to pull through, with Miller once again representing her club, province and country with great distinction.
While most people take the traditional route of playing for their local rugby club and working their way through the various committees before becoming President of their club, Sloane Cooper, President of Portlaoise RFC, took a somewhat different route.
Not many people would consider coming from the Middle East to Portlaosie a normal route into a route into a rugby club, but that is exactly how Cooper became involved with his club.
Having returned to Ireland in the mid 1970’s, Cooper pitched his tent in Portlaoise and became immersed in a club that was still in their formative stage, having been founded some ten years previously in 1966.
He would work his way up through the club, spending time as both a selector and the chairman of selectors, before taking the step up to become President. While it was not a stated goal of his to become President, he was ‘delighted and honoured’ when he did make the step up to the highest office within Portlaoise.
Cooper has seen a lot during his time with the club. While not wanting to hark back to a bye gone age, he does admit that the last number of years have been a challenge, both on and off the pitch.
“The 1980’s and 1990’s were a great period in the club. It was a social hub and we created a lot of great memories in that period of time. Over the last ten years there is a lot less social rugby being played. There is a lot more external pressure on people nowadays. I think people have become disillusioned with the state of the economy and so forth. We have also lost a huge number of young lads to emigration which hasn’t helped.
“I tell people that we have as good a side in Australia as we do in Portlaoise. We went through a period when we won three Harry Gale cups and we thought those players would make the step up. Then the downturn hit and most of them left Ireland”.
While the loss of players has hit Portlaoise, Cooper and the club as a whole, have, like the majority of clubs around the country, have had to keep a watchful eye on the purse strings too. One of Cooper’s goals when he became President was to keep a secure reign on the club’s finances, something that he feels that the club have managed to achieve.
“It hasn’t been easy but we feel that we are in a good place”, says Cooper. “Everyone is in the same boat. We are just concentrating on what we can control and we just keep tipping away.
“Along with stabilising the clubs finances, we are looking to consolidate our league position. Having lost so many players through emigration etc has been tough. It’s not like a couple of years ago when you get a player in from New Zealand for example, because you have to pay him a fair few quid and also try find him a job, which is hard to come by nowadays.
“We have a nice mix of young and older players at the moment, so we’d be hopeful of progressing over the next couple of seasons”.
That progression is not just confined to the men’s side at Portlaoise RFC. The club boasts Grand Slam winner Alison Miller among their female members. Along with their ladies setup, Cooper is also keen to point out the underage structure that Portlaoise have in operation at the moment, something which he is rightly proud of.
“We are hugely proud of Alison and everything that she and the Ireland team have achieved to date. They work unbelievably hard and they deserve all the success that they get. We also have a very good underage system in place. At any weekend there could be upwards of 250 children, ranging from all ages at the club, which is tremendous to see, because they are the future”.
That future does look bright for Portlaoise RFC, albeit it with some challenges on and off the pitch, Cooper knows full well the role that the club plays for the local people.“We cater for the majority of Laois. The club plays a huge role in the local community and we are very aware of that. Of course there are going to be challenging times ahead, but we will keep our heads down, keep working away and I’m sure the club will continue to meet those challenges head on”.