Towards a century at the heart of Connacht rugby

Author: Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

Finn Treacy profile

As the Irish U20s set their sights on France in the Stade Maurice David this Saturday, one of Connachts’ rising stars will be hoping to make his mark on the international scene and stake a claim on the green jersey. 

Wicklow-born Finn Treacy moved to the Connacht Academy during the summer after catching the eye of Eric Elwood during the Irish U18 schools campaign. “Eric came up here and met with me in Bray”, said Tracey. “We just had a meeting about what they had to offer me down there and we compared it with the opportunity in Leinster. It was just a no-brainer for me.”

The 19-year-old was first introduced to the sport when he joined the Greystones U8 squad. It was where he developed his skill set for the game until his introduction to the Leinster schools’ system with Presentation College Bray.

During his third year of secondary school, Treacy joined the Leinster schools programme, playing with their U17s. Despite being dropped from the Leinster U18s squad, Treacy had shown enough potential with ‘Pres Bray’ to earn his place in the Irish U18s Schools panel and returned to Leinster for their U19s season, narrowly missing out on an Irish tour to France through injury.

Following his move to Connacht, Treacy joined Galwegians RFC, playing a pivotal role in their title fight in the AIL Divison 2C. He has started ten of their twelve games this season, appearing both at centre and on the wing. “I feel like my level has gone up not only through Connacht but through ‘Wegians as well”.

Treacy admits he didn’t need much convincing when it came to joining Galwegians. “I would have known ‘Wegians as a big club, although they are not where they want to be at the moment. But when I spoke to the coaches they mentioned ‘the rebuilding’ as they called it, with the team they have now. It’s a great team playing some really exciting rugby at the moment.” 

Treacy’s thriving in the Irish camp with high praise for head coach Ritchie Murphy. “The environment that Ritchie Murphy creates is class you’re excited to go to every time.” With squad selection up for grabs, Treacy is relishing every opportunity that comes his way. “It is a great environment to be in with quality everywhere you look. So it will be really tough to pick a squad out of that bunch, but that’s what fuels you and motivates you”.

He also has the opportunity to play alongside his Connacht and Irish team counterpart, Hugh Gavin, who will play alongside him in this year’s tournament. Treacy believes that his familiarity with Gavin’s playing style is a massive benefit within the Irish squad: “Just having that connection with him not only in Connacht but playing with him in ‘Wegians it even translates over to the training games as I sort of know how he operates. Especially his experience. He has done it all last year, won the grand slam and got to the World Cup final, so just chatting to him and getting bits of advice brings my game on.”

Having received a debrief from the former Irish U20s captain from the 2022 campaign on what to expect in France from the French and the crowd, Treacy emphasises the importance of belief within the team. “You can’t really prepare yourself for something like that you just have to have that sense of belief not only in your teammates but the belief that you can win”.

Treacy is confident in his team’s ability as they gear up to face last year’s World Cup winners on home soil and set down a marker. “Seeing how we’re flowing and connecting is exciting stuff. As a team, we want that grand slam”. 

With 4 AIL tries for Galwegians and one for Ireland in the pre-Christmas warm-up game vs Italy, Treacy has a nose for the try line and if he is selected for Saturday’s clash, he will be eager to build on his tally throughout the championship.

LK Shields – Our club sponsor

by Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

Many of us might recognise the LK Shields name from the different places around the club, be it the match day jersey or the sponsor boards around the main pitch. But how many of us really know who LK Shields are and what they stand for?

I sat down with two LK Shields solicitors and former Galwegians players Kris O’Shea and Stephen Browne, to answer these questions.

Kris began playing for Wegians’ at the age of 14 following a move from Loughrea. He went on to play with the club until he was 24, playing for the Mens’ firsts during their time in AIL 1B. A stand-out memory for Kris, as he worked his way through the ranks, was reaching the U16 All Ireland in Naas in 2006.

Stephen, on the other hand, might be a more familiar face having played with the club as recently as the start of the 2021 season, but following a torn calf muscle he was forced to hang up the boots for a while. 

In short LK Shields is a corporate law firm that started in Dublin. They offer a full range of corporate law services, from commercial law to employment, litigation, property and so much more.   

LK Shields opened a Galway office a few years ago, which Kris says has been massively important to their customers in the West, We found Galway people like talking to Galway people, it’s amazing. The Galway office has been open for a few years now and it’s important to us to be putting Galway people on the ground here. I’m from Loughrea born and bred, and it’s pretty much the same as everyone else in the office. They’re from Galway or at least the West, so we’re making a real conscious effort to have a real boots-on-the-ground mentality here”.

With the focus on Galway, the importance of community in the county was clear to see, which is why the next step LK Shields needed to take was simple; to get involved in the local communities, “First of all, I suppose it’s just to get the name out in the area and make it known that we support local companies, local clubs, and local teams. We want to show that we’re not just here to pay lip service we’re here to get fully integrated into and be part of everything.”

When choosing a team to sponsor, Wegians was a perfect fit for LK Shields as the spirit of the club aligned well with that of the LK Shields Galway office, “It is a good match, when it was being discussed inside, having come up through the underage system in Wegians and seeing what that’s like, the kind of camaraderie and all, it is something that appealed to us, and when it was bounced off me, it was something I was eager to keep going. I think there are a lot of similarities, there’s an appreciation here for all of that camaraderie and teamwork. There are huge similarities, both of us being a Western team, a ‘Western Force’ battling it out” says Kris.

In turn, LK Shields’s support has been integral to what goes on in Galwegians since signing the deal three years ago. Club teams need this type of sponsorship to run year in and year out, to pay for things such as insurance, and maintenance to ensure all club members receive the best experience when they come through the gates of Crowley Park, which is why chairman Mike Ryan praises LK Shields so highly for their support, “We’re hugely appreciative of the sponsorship provided by LK Shields, clubs like ours cannot survive without sponsorships such as this. LK Shields is a new and successful firm of solicitors in Galway, and we wish them every success for the future”.

For the two lads, Galwegians has had a lasting effect on their lives after rugby. The friends they have made along with the lessons they’ve learned, and skills they’ve fine-tuned through the sport, all transfer into their work lives. Stephen says that “Coming through Wegians during those important years of your life between 18 and 24, then going through college, it helped that I had made all those friends in the club. But it also helped shape the person you become, from the people you hang out with because there are so many great people in the club. Outside of rugby, I learned an awful lot about myself and all the social skills, it all rubs off on you. I really enjoyed my time playing there I got a lot more from the club than just rugby, and that’s an important takeaway.”

Referee profile: Dermot Blake

Dermot Blake

by Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

Although a life member of the club many of our community might not know Dermot Blake. Dermot has a deep-rooted connection to Galwegians. He is the grandson of founding member and former president Henry St. John Blake, son of past president Bruce Blake and brother to last year’s president Carl. However, with a long line of club presidents in the family, Dermot took a different approach when it came to rugby.

Dermot grew up in Dublin but attended Glenstal Abbey where he later became a housemaster. Although rugby was engraved in the Blake’s DNA, Dermot didn’t play much rugby growing up “I played a bit at under 10s or minis and junior cup was pretty much the extent of my rugby career”. It wasn’t until he became housemaster and rugby coach at Glenstal in 2005 that he found his true rugby calling picking up the whistle and taking charge.

“I took the course because I had to,” says Blake. As the U14s coach, he had to be equipped to take charge of some of the in-house games that took place in Glenstal. Having enjoyed his first year as a referee, Blake soon received a phone call asking if he’d like to join the Munster rugby roster and referee some other games around the province, he happily accepted this challenge.

By 2007 Blake had begun to take charge of some important games around Munster. As the assessments began so did the Branch’s method of testing. They threw Blake in at the deep end, appointing him to games above his current level. Blake took each one in his stride and progressed at a very quick pace taking charge of Junior cup games and the Junior plate final.

Within a year Blake had been nominated by the Munster branch to progress to the IPAS level and started refereeing the AIL. Following a move back to Leinster and Dublin, the 41-year-old started to make a name for himself in the province.

It wasn’t until Blake realised the importance of match preparation, that he began to fully excel on the pitch. Blakes says that there are two different types of preparation one of them is theory and research-based. He does his homework on each team he has been appointed to referee, to ensure he has all the tools and knowledge to referee the game to the best of his ability, “as soon as I get my fixture I start to do my research, looking at the team’s last games and making notes”, after the game phase two commences with self-evaluation, “you have to be your own biggest critique”, says Blake, “I watch back every match I do at least twice, the first time to get a feel for how my game went and to make time stamps and the second time to look at specific points or moments in the game”. 

The other method is on-field preparation. In Malahide where he lives Blake along with about 10 other referees come together each week to train on the pitch. Together the group work on fitness through interval training and sprints which replicate a match tempo. They also work on scenarios to better their positioning and to attempt to replicate a match.

During the 2016 season, Blake took charge of The Leinster schools Senior cup quarter-final, and quarter-final replay between Blackrock and Belvedere college, which he remembers fondly, “I still watch it on Youtube and it is, without a doubt, the greatest game of rugby that I have ever been involved in”. Due to his excellent performance in both games, he earned himself the appointment for the most prestigious game in the Leinster Rugby calendar, the Leinster schools Senior cup final. 

At the end of the 2016 season, Blake was awarded the Alain Rolland award for ARLB Referee of the Year Award, which he says was all down to the change in his attitude toward preparation that aided him to reach his full potential.

Blake has reached the highest level of refereeing possible in Ireland without becoming a professional, he has assistant refereed in URC games, and even in some European games which he has thoroughly enjoyed, but he knows without a doubt that he never wants to take the next step and become a pro.  The loneliness experienced on the road week in and week out is the main reason why he is happy with where he is right now. His only goal now is to continue as national panel referee until the age of 45, “my goal is to get to 45, and every year after that is a bonus”.

Although Blake has been a part of many prestigious games down through the years one, in particular, stood out. Back in 2020, he took charge of the first Bruce St John Blake Memorial cup between Galwegians and NUIG which honours his father. This would be the first and only time that Blake would referee Galwegians. Being a life member of the club, there are rules that prevent him from refereeing Galwegians, but due to circumstances, the two teams came to a mutual agreement and allowed him to referee the game which Blake says was “a real privilege” to be a part of.

Blake believes that the reason he loves refereeing so much is that, “it’s like having a front-row seat to the action” he loves “the sense of satisfaction when I have a good game, just being so close to the action of a high-level game is really enjoyable. I would never have been involved at this level of the game without refereeing”. 

“After my wife and daughter, refereeing is the most important thing in my life”.

Dermot Blake

As a mental health OT he knows the benefits of being active, and for him refereeing is a fantastic way to do so, “it keeps your mind engaged, it’s an interest outside your daily life, and you can only benefit from having extra interests, I say to my wife, after her and my daughter, reffing is actually the most important thing in my life because I love it, I absolutely love it. When I’ve finished refereeing, she already knows that I will be involved in referee administration because I love refereeing and I’ll need that for me and my mental health”.

Blake believes that refereeing is a great way to “give back and to stay involved in the club”. For Blake refereeing was a way to continue his relationship with rugby without playing and that’s why he would encourage more people to get involved in that side of the sport. Blakes’s message to anyone who is starting out as a referee is the most important thing for a young referee to do is “not to be too hard on yourself, allow yourself to make mistakes because you never stopped making them. Learn that early, accept it, and just enjoy it”

Referee profile: Katie Kilbane

by Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

Katie Kilbane

Katie Kilbane is a wealth of experience when it comes to wielding the whistle. Having refereed for 12 years now she has taken charge of games at as high a level as Women’s AIL, J1 and U20s in both Connacht and Munster.

Kilbane first played rugby during her time in university, “I had wanted to play for years but dad wouldn’t let me, he thought it was bad enough that I was breaking myself playing football, so I definitely shouldn’t play rugby.” But by that point, she was an adult and instead of joining the college football team, she signed up for rugby.

While playing with the university she also join Galwegians and played a season in the Women’s AIL, but says she didn’t keep it up due to other commitments “I was rowing, I was playing county football, I was playing rugby with the college and then I took up reffing on top of that so it was just a lot”.  

It was clear that once Kilbane had a taste for the sport she fully immersed herself in it. After playing for about a year she had already signed up for a refereeing course. When asked what the appeal to refereeing was she responded with a laugh “baiting literal baiting”, from a friend and referee Mike Forrestal who ebbed her to “try refereeing a real game”.

Having refereed GAA from under 12s and getting her qualifications as a GAA ref at the age of 16 Kilbane says she was always “weirdly interested”, in refereeing “I spent my Junior Cert results night refereeing a camogie match instead of going out”, so with the interest and experience it was a decision that just made sense to her.

Since becoming a referee the 29 year old has worked her way up through the ranks where she now takes charge of games in J1 U20s and in the Women’s AIL.

Some might imagine that being a female referee in the men’s game would be difficult but Kilbane says otherwise “men can be easier than women, I guess it’s a little different for me as I have played with the women and some of them know me personally where as with the men they don’t care if your male or female, donkey or a dog as long as you’re doing a good job. But it’s a very enjoyable sport and a very welcoming sport that’s a good degree of respect there from men’s and women.”

A highlight in Kilbane’s career came in 2017 while she was refereeing in Munster.  She was chosen to officiate as a touch judge during the first-ever women’s Barbarian series.  “it was probably the closest to a professional environment that I’ve been in”. The Barbarians came out as clear winners over Munster in Thomond Park with a 19-0 victory. 

Kilbane stopped playing the sport a couple of years back through various different injuries and that was when she decided to focus on refereeing which in return gave her the outlet to stay involved in the sport “It was my way of competitively staying within the game not everybody joins refereeing to be competitive about it and to try and get to the top, I do. It gave me a sense of purpose within the game when I couldn’t physically play it anymore.”

Without referees our game wouldn’t be able to function but refereeing isn’t there just to facilitate the player but for people like Katie it’s away to stay involved and competitive and an overall  great sport to be involved in “So if your falling out of the game it’s a great way to stay involved in it at a high level and it’s also just a great way of giving back if you want to volunteer but coaching isn’t for you it’s a great way to get involved and there’s something there for everyone.”

Referee profile: Eoin Staunton

Eoin Staunton

by Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

At the age of just 20 years old Eoin Staunton is the youngest Referee affiliated with Galwegians.

About six months ago Eoin began his journey to become a referee. The decision came following a loss of interest in the playing aspect of the game. Having spent 14 years playing with Galwegians joining at the age of 6, rugby had a strong place in Eoin’s life but he had begun to lose interest following a year with the 20s.  

Rather than hanging up his boots, Eoin took an alternative route to stay involved in the club.

“I nearly prefer it to playing myself. You’re there in the middle of the action without being in the play.”

Eoin Staunton

When a message came out from the committee that the Connacht branch were to be running referee courses Eoin said he’d chance his arm at refereeing. “One of the guys showed me the link to the reffing course and I said sure why not I’ll give it a go. I went and did the course and I learned a lot, and now I really enjoy reffing.”

Following his decision to start refereeing Eoin underwent 2 months of online modules on the laws of the game and on how to identify concussion.

Once these modules were completed Eoin went on to touch judge two games before taking charge of his first U13s game which took him by surprise “It was a high enough pace and the game kind of flowed because both teams had a real willingness to play rugby.”

Fitness is a key part of being a good referee for Eoin. “You have to be able to keep up with the play, because if something happens you have you be there to make the decision”.

When starting up college with ATU, Eoin returned to athletics where he trains as a middle-distance runner. “I do athletics with the college and that kind of training would keep me fairly fit for reffing. Some of the stuff I do in training would be similar to what I would do in match situation”.

As a ref, you get to see the fun side of rugby and the banter between teams. While reffing a recent Wegians vs Jes game Eoin had plenty of moments when he had to “hold back on laughing”, as both sides were very familiar with each other with and some players playing for both sides. Eoin recalls one player asking the other to “ease off a bit” in the scrum.

Since qualifying Eoin has been in action most weekends, sometimes taking charge of 2 games a day which he says can take its physical toll. “You can definitely feel it in the legs”. 

Staunton is very much enjoying his switch to refereeing and even though he is taking it one match at a time, he one day hopes to progress from club level.

“I guess I’m just taking it day by day and listening to those more experienced people and just trying to improve after every performance. Eventually I would like this to be a career”. 

For Eoin it’s a great way to stay involved with the sport without actually playing and that’s why he thinks more people should get into refereeing. “I would definitely recommend that people to get into reffing a lot more. It’s not the easiest job in the world but you definitely get enjoyment out of it”.

And it’s not just about your own enjoyment. Eoin says it’s great for the next generation of rugby players too. “For younger age groups you’re kind of like their coach. You’re coaching them on how to play. Not only do you benefit but you know you’re helping someone else benefit from getting experience and improving them for when they get older”.

If you have an interest in becoming a referee or would like to learn more please contact your local branch officer.

Mary Healy and Nicole Fowley. The Last Dance?

By Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

Mary Healy and Nicole Fowley reflect on their on-field journey as Mary plays her final game in the green jersey.

Following the recent Women’s Inter Pro series with over 20 Galwegians represented in the Connacht squad, captain Mary Healy and Galwegians captain Nicole Fowley reflect on their journeys with both Galwegians and Connacht as Mary enters her final season before hanging up the boots, breaking up one of the most consistent half-back partnerships in both Galwegians and Connacht.

Although a disappointing and difficult campaign for Connacht with only one win out of three matches it was a great opportunity for a lot of the younger women to make a start at provincial level with an unseen 12 new caps that proves the development of women’s rugby within the province and within Galwegians.

For Mary rugby didn’t come around until she was in her third year of college. Mary Joined Galwegians by chance back in 2012 at the age of 22 when GMIT failed to put together a team. Mary first played for Connacht in 2013 going in for an open trial and being selected as scrum half for her first Inter Pros. Mary impressed in the Inter Pros earning herself an invitation into the Irish set up as a guest where she would train and attend camp learning from the coaches and those around her. 

Mary was determined to put herself in contention for an Irish jersey putting in the extra hours with the former scrum half and Galwegian’s head coach at the time Cory Brown who taught her all she needed to know “in the space of about six months I went from not being able to pass to being able to pass and then I was actually in contention”.  All her hard work paid off when Mary earned her first cap in the Stoop in Twickenham in the first Women’s International November series in 2015. Mary has since gone on to win a total of 14 Irish caps.

For Nicole, it was a different story altogether growing up in Sligo she played Gaelic football and soccer with a bit of tag rugby on the side. Nicole started off her rugby journey with Sligo Rfc to learn more about the sport and have a bit of fun on the pitch it wasn’t until she was in college that she began to play rugby more frequently joining Railway Union and traveling up to Dublin from Sligo whenever she could to train. Although she really enjoyed rugby, Gaelic and soccer still came first and only for a combination of Railway player-coach, Mere Baker seeing her potential and Connacht drafting her into the squad, she was eventually chose to dedicate herself to rugby.

 Following her decision to focus on rugby Nicole moved to Galway in 2016, “to play at the highest level” which was with Galwegians. From there she began to work hard putting in all the “early mornings and late evenings” which paid off when she was selected to pay for Ireland and she says that she “hasn’t looked back since”, now with eight Irish caps in her back pocket.

Both women being so ambitious agreed that there were many sacrifices to be made to reach the level that both of them played at. Mary says that when she played for Ireland “something had to give usually a social life and your team becomes everything”, the grueling routine of early mornings in the gym before work, after work running sessions which Nicole remembers fondly before continuing on to club training allowed no time for anything other than rugby.

Having served their time on International duty the pair seem to be enjoying life at home with Galwegians which has had a long-lasting effect on them. For Nicole “it’s the comradery and the friendships that we’ve made down through the last number of years, it’s very much a family vibe which I think is kind of our culture and our ethos that everyone is welcome.” 

The pair make a fantastic duo on the pitch but it also works well off the pitch with Nicole popping the question back in August. Having been together nearly eight years they agree that their understanding of each other benefits their game in many ways. But like all half-back partnerships it’s not always smooth sailing “don’t get me wrong every now and then we do kill each other on the pitch, but you would if you were any other 9 and 10. But what happens on the pitch absolutely stays on the pitch,” stated Nicole while Mary insisted that it was never her fault.

With Mary stepping away at the end of this season to focus on her career she has set a goal to see Connacht win an Inter Pros be it promoting women’s rugby to helping with skills and passing sessions. 

But for now Mary and Nicole continue to steer the ship for the women’s firsts in the AIL. Off the pitch, you will often see them on the side-line or helping out with the minis on Saturday mornings inspiring the younger generations and sometimes you might even see them in the club bar making one of the Galwegians Women’s infamous TikTok’s.

Hugh Gavin profile

by Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

Hugh Gavin playing for the Ireland U20s in a friendly. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

“That’s always been the big dream but, I suppose your dreams change when I was 12 and 13 all I wanted to be, was a Wegian.”

This February the U20 Six Nations and among the up-and-coming young prospects representing Ireland is Galwegians own Hugh Gavin.

The 19-year-old Salthill native began playing rugby in Crowley Park at the age of six and from there on his love for the sport grew. Hugh played the age group above his own for the first couple of years under coaches Mickey Sherlock, Gerry Lowry, and Gary Gillanders along with his Dad and former club captain Barry Gavin whom he credits for his success and also that of his teammates “that coaching panel were really good for the club with so many of us going up and playing with the seniors and even playing provincial it’s a real credit to the coaches.”

Gavin impressed at the underage level earning himself a spot in the Connacht development squads before going to the next step representing the province in the u17 squad when they played against Munster.

The following year Gavin progressed into the Connacht U18s Inter Pro squad where he began to flourish “the first taste of a more professional environment and I really enjoyed that, I took to that and then I got my first Inter Pros start against Ulster”. Gavin went on to score two tries that day before coming off with a torn quad which would see him miss out on the rest of the competition.

After this Gavin worried that he might not be able to make his goal of reaching the Irish u18s Club squad but “luckily enough they took the chance with me and brought me in and that October I got my first international cap against Italy.

Since then the Galwegians man has gone on to play on the wing for the Connacht eagles in the summer development games, which lead to a conversation with Galwegians and Connacht legend Eric Elwood who offered Gavin his first Academy contract “it was a surreal moment in my rugby career, just to think that I put my head down and my hard work has paid off.” 

With many special moments coming in different shades of green jersey, Gavin made some special ones in the sky-blue jersey too. His favourite of which being his first AIL cap for his club “I was in Crowley Park watching the Seniors pretty much every Saturday from a young age and to finally run out myself in front of the fans and the club legends when the club means so much to them its nice to get out and do your bit for the team”.

While most 19-year-olds are enjoying college life Gavin is making sacrifices to ensure he can put his “best foot forward”, with training four days a week in the Connacht academy, the first-year Commerce student says it can be difficult to balance rugby and college work but he always finds time for his mates “You obviously have to give up a lot of the night Iife and you’re early to bed most nights but apart from that see my mates the days I’m in college and weekends it’s just the weekday stuff you can’t be at and you can’t be getting a takeaway with the lads the whole time”. 

Since being selected for the U20s squad Gavin has been training hard at different camps all over the country. With great squad depth, Gavin believes the squad is reaping the benefits of healthy competition “We’ve all been getting better week on week just pushing each other its class”.

 The Irish Under 20s take on Wales Friday the 3rd of February and we will be hoping to see Hugh get some game time under his belt and kick on for the rest of the campaign. 

By Ciarán Ó Flaithearta

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