There will be two Highfield men in the Munster front row at Thomond Park this evening when James Cronin and Kevin O’Byrne pack down against the Scarlets. That would have been cause enough for pride in Cork City’s western suburbs in times gone by when the club was more used to its brightest and best making tracks for greener grass away from Woodleigh Park.
Things are very different these days. The Highfield first team will be in Dublin as Cronin and O’Byrne prepare for kick-off in Limerick, bidding to stretch their impressive 10-point lead at the top of Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B as they continue their march towards top-flight rugby.
Fate is not being tempted, chickens remain uncounted and fingers are staying crossed but with five games left, including today’s visit to Old Belvedere at Ollie Campbell Park, the thought of a fourth promotion in six seasons is being embraced rather than silenced.
When player-head coach Timmy Ryan took the reins six years ago, returning to his childhood club after years as a professional tighthead prop with Munster, Toulon, Newcastle and the Dragons, Highfield were rumbling along in Division 2B, not altogether unhappy with their lot as director of rugby Rob Bogue told the Irish Examiner this week.
Bogue credits Ryan with the change in mindset that now sees Highfield on the verge of the biggest promotion of them all.
“It’s going very well,” Bogue said. “We’re wondering sometimes whether we need to pinch ourselves but no, it’s going great.
“There’s a great buzz at the moment and things from season to season just seem to be getting better and better.
“I think Tim Ryan coming in was huge. He deserves enormous credit for the job he’s done. He gave them a vision and he’s very much driven, with a winning mentality. In the days I played, we might have settled for second best but he’s driven that winning mentality and off the pitch as well we’ve really tried to push on, things like player welfare, looking after guys, making sure they’re okay in their jobs or in college, that sort of stuff.
“Small things too, like pizzas and beers after matches, help keep everyone together. Marry that really good environment with Tim’s style of play, which the players love playing, that’s very important because any guys who come in say they love playing this brand of rugby. Players love playing here. There’s huge momentum at the moment and we want to keep it going.
“But Tim deserves huge credit. He’s still playing at 35, his brothers (Dave and Paddy) all played here, he came up through the underage system and went off as a professional player, played for Munster against the All Blacks, went over to Toulon, Newcastle and other places.
“When he came back, we’d just gotten relegated from 2A when we shouldn’t have done. Tim was in Newport at the time, his contract was finishing up and he looked at it as an opportunity for him to coach. He’s always been a Highfield man.
“So Tim came in and put his heart and soul into it. Miah Cronin (back-rower and James Cronin’s brother) returned from Dolphin, (scrum-half) Chris Bannon came back and there was a core of young lads like Fintan O’Sullivan, now our captain, coming through. So it was nice timing.
“Tim has put his heart and soul into it and success breeds success.”
Ryan and the Highfield think tank have a busy weekend, with the Munster Junior Cup to defend at home to Cork Con tomorrow. The seconds bridged a 47-year gap last year when they pipped Con to the trophy at Musgrave Park last May with the last kick of the game from Paddy O’Toole and the victory was just as special to the club as the ongoing league success.
There is an increasingly professional feel to the Highfield set-up. Damien O’Sullivan has been brought in as strength and conditioning coach having previously worked with the Meath footballers and 1A powerhouse Lansdowne while one of the central projects is the building of a new gym at Woodleigh Park.
“We don’t want to jinx it but we’ve got to be realistic,” Bogue said. “We’re 10 points clear, five games left. Our ambition at the start of the year would have been the top four but now that we’re here we want to push on and get it.
“Five games, it’s in our hands and that’s the way we would have wanted it. They are a very ambitious bunch of players so they’d be very angry I think if we didn’t push on and finish the deal now. They’re so focused at the moment, it’s incredible.
“Shannon and Wesley and Banbridge and Malone are still in and around there but if you ever said we’d be 10 points clear with five games to go we’d have bitten your hand off,” he said.
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