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Interview: Jack Casey of UCC Rugby

By Sam Curtin

With UCC Rugby in the middle of a hectic season and celebrating a special 150th anniversary next year, I caught up with Jack Casey who is the Development Officer for the club.

UCC rugby is the biggest club in the university with over 180 active members. With five teams competing across various competitions. “We have a senior men’s, Under the 20s, senior men’s seconds, senior men’s thirds and a women’s squad.” The club is also celebrating its 150th anniversary next year, something which Jack is very proud of. “The season 2022-23 marks the 150th anniversary of UCC rugby, making it one of the oldest clubs in the country if not the world, Trinity College being slightly older than us.”

The size of the club also provides challenges however with more facilities needed to cope with the demand. “That is fantastic for us but unfortunately the negative side of it is that we don’t have the facilities to cater for everybody. We’re working closely with the department of sport and university to try and provide facilities for more students to be more physically active.” Indeed, the facility is a subject that comes up often in our conversation. “Unfortunately, we are under pressure with the pitches in the Farm to try and cope with the number of students who want to play and so we have to find a way around catering for them. Unfortunately, space is at a premium. 

Volunteers also play a huge part in the club and the rugby club is keen to ensure that they have a positive and educational experience during their time here. “Most sports in UCC have also experienced a volunteer fall off because of covid. We’re trying to address that by ensuring that our volunteers come in and we support them by upskilling, education, there are workshops available to them and we’re looking at lots of different initiatives to try and encourage volunteers to come back to the club.”

A number of these volunteers are students, but rugby is unique in UCC in that there is a mix of students and older members who help to run the club. “We are primarily a student club, we do have an alumni committee which is vital for the survival of UCC Rugby because to compete in a semi-professional environment you do need finance and experience. We are lucky to have a proactive alumni committee but we do need to get more students involved in administration, coaching and refereeing to ensure that we provide a flow of players into the game post their university career.

‘Providing’ is a keyword during our conversation with UCC being a third level institution, it takes great pride in producing rugby players who are capable to being involved with the sport long after their time in UCC is over. “ Usually players come into us and play for four or five years and then would go on to join a local club. That is crucial for the longevity of the game. We are a very important component of Irish rugby because we take players from schools, we give opportunities to those who want to play at the highest level, earlier than they would at mainstream clubs and that can only be good for the game locally.”

This is reflected in the number of players involved with both the Munster senior team and academy with the likes of Jack O’Sullivan, John Hodnett and Alex Kendellan who have all played for Ireland at the Under 20 level are now beginning to make strides at their province. “Year in year out, we have players on Irish under 20 teams, Irish student teams. We want to develop players who want to play at the highest level possible rather than holding them back just to play with college.”

Despite being a great development club, UCC isn’t short on success either with the under 20 sides winning silverware for the last three years with the main ambition according to Jack, is to win the national competition over the next couple of years. It is a grade that has been particularly influential for the senior side which plays in Division 1A of the AIL. In fact, against Garryowen recently, the entire front row was under the age of 20 which is a testament to the development structures in place from the moment players arrive at UCC.

While the men’s teams have always been brimming with numbers, the women’s game has been a topic of conversation nationally in recent times. In UCC, women’s participation is certainly on the up with over 40 players involved with the team which is the highest its ever been. “Our women’s team compete in division one of the Student Sport Ireland leagues where they play the likes of UL, UCD and DCU so they’re really up with the really strong third level colleges that are playing women’s rugby and it’s a great profile for it. UCC really want to promote women’s rugby and that’s an integral part of our strategic plan.” 

As with any club, the pandemic has had a significant effect on rugby in UCC both positively and negatively according to Jack. “On the positive side of things we’ve got a huge influx of students who want to play rugby following pretty much, 18 months of lockdown. It has been challenging for us however particularly with the early restrictions where we trained in pods of 6, pods of 15, gyms weren’t open which play a huge part in our preparation. Strength and conditioning are one of the aspects of rugby that’s getting more important. However, through the support from the Mardyke Arena, the department of sport, we have relocated to a retrofitted gym in Dennehy’s Cross which gives us the opportunity to be able to train. In the long term, there are plans to extend the Mardyke Arena in time for next season with a purpose-built, world-class squad gym.”

Facilities and playing personnel are always at the forefront but what about the profile of the sport within UCC and how could it be raised? “I think the University population of staff and students has to play a bigger part, to be honest, and that’s not having a go at the university as an institution. We have an opportunity as we have a historic ground, we’ve nine home games in the top tier of domestic rugby AIL Division 1A and we’re working towards bringing more students down to watch fellow students play. Students can come to our games free of charge and we’re also reaching out to schools. Our last home game of the season is against Trinity and we’re hoping to make a big day of it with maybe music and some fancy dress and stuff like that. Ultimately, the greatest ambassadors for UCC rugby is the student players themselves. In my time here I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a player who has had a bad experience.”

As for Jack’s role as Development Officer for rugby in UCC, a post he has held since 2015, it is a position which at times can be stressful but is ultimately a very rewarding experience. “I see myself as more of a facilitator, I don’t come from a coaching background, more from an operational side of things. My main role is selling an experience to every single player that pulls on the skull and crossbones. The number of people who come back each year and the friendships they have made. It’s so undervalued. They play together, they holiday together, they do business together, that’s what university sport should be.”

What counts for success in his eyes? “The measure of success for me is to see people graduating from UCC with a degree and having had an experience with UCC rugby that they will remember for the rest of their lives. The connections that they made, the fun that they had. It’s hard to explain to young people the value of that but certainly, as they grow older when they travel, the value of having played sport at university is invaluable. Success is a bonus but for me, the experience is more valuable than winning trophies.”

As we finish up, Christmas is around the corner and with that in mind, is there anything on the wishlist? Collectively we are very fortunate to have the support of the University, I wish our senior team would have a little bit more joy on the rugby pitch, fewer injuries, to continue to enjoy themselves and do the best they can do. When I first arrived, I asked someone who had been around the club awhile what does it take for a student to enjoy their time in UCC rugby. He said quite simply, you study hard, you train hard, you play hard, and you party hard, but you do none of those in excess.”

Not a bad way to be and it seems to be working.