DESPITE having their campaign cut short due to the Coronavirus outbreak, there is more than enough reason for Highfield RFC to be positive about the road that lies ahead.
If you cast your mind back to April 2016, the Cork club were in a much different place to the one they currently find themselves in. With one round remaining in Division 2B of the All-Ireland League, they were one point adrift of City of Derry at the summit of the table.
However, thanks to a bonus-point triumph over Bective Rangers — which bettered the Ulster side’s own victory against MU Barnhall — they claimed the fourth-tier title and haven’t looked back since.
They secured the Division 2A crown last season and, with four games remaining in this term, the Woodleigh Park outfit were on the brink of reaching the top-flight of the AIL.
Unfortunately, the league has ultimately been brought to a premature end as a consequence of COVID-19 and Highfield will have to do it all again in 2020/21.
Nevertheless, director of rugby, Billy Quinlan, insists they will retain a positive outlook in advance of their eventual return to competitive action.
“The club is in a good position. We’ve had a very good coaching structure in place. Very good off-the-field structure. We’ve a superb group of players. There’s good player welfare up there.
“The guys get their grub after training on Thursdays, small things like this. Robert Bogue, who was director of rugby before me up to this year, he did a brilliant job,” Quinlan asserted.
“There’s years of hard work from our point of view. Whatever happens, we’ll bounce back, take it on the chin. We’ll do whatever we need to do. Whatever happens next year, we’ll come back stronger.”
A former player with Highfield, Quinlan assumed his current role from the Bogue at the tail end of 2019. As he explains, it has been a seamless transition.
“I’ve been up in the club 20-odd years. I’d know a lot of the people involved. I know the structure up there. Robert Bogue is still involved. We’ve good people involved in the club right through.
“Invariably with good people involved, you’ll have good decisions made. It has been easy enough. There’s been a lot of hands on deck. It makes it a lot easier. You’re not thrown in at the deep end.”
One man who has played a massive part in the Highfield revolution, both on an off the field, has been player/coach Timmy Ryan. A former tighthead prop with Munster, Toulon and Newcastle Falcons (among others), the 35-year-old has transformed the fortunes of the Leesiders in recent years transposing his vast knowledge of the professional game onto Ireland’s domestic scene.
He is now expected to move onto pastures new and Quinlan hailed the impact made by Ryan during his second stint at the club.
“Timmy has been brilliant for the club in the last five, six years. He’ll be missed because it seems like he’s moving on to Wales. He brought a lot of experience, he brought a winning mentality.
“He changed the psyche of the team and the club, in many ways. Again, that wouldn’t have happened without people buying into it off the pitch as well.
“People gave him licence to do it because they recognised he could do it and it has worked really well. Highfield always in the past have been described as a sleeping giant and what have you. With Timmy’s help, I think that’s been laid to rest.”
It isn’t all geared towards the senior men’s team down in Woodleigh Park, though, as they have maintained a competitive edge at virtually every grade and level of competition. The second team had climbed to third spot in Munster Senior League Division 1 while their thirds recorded seven wins from 10 games in the South Junior 2 League.
Additionally, they also enjoyed a productive campaign in the U20 Donal Walsh Plate — finishing a single point behind pace-setters Bruff.
“We’ve 40-odd training between the firsts and the seconds. On the J2s we have 30-odd training as well and we’ve an U20 team. Just before the outbreak of the coronavirus, we had entered a team in the J3 plate even. It shows you, our numbers are great. People are enjoying it, it’s a good place to be at the moment and long may it continue,” Quinlan said.
Yet, there is still some room for growth within the club. Having spent many years in the sole division of their All-Ireland League, the Highfield senior women have struggled for numbers in the past couple of seasons.
With current Ireland internationals Leah Lyons, Ellen Murphy and Laura Sheehan having lined out for the club in the recent past, Quinlan acknowledged it will be important to have a competitive squad for the future generations of Highfield girls to look up to.
“I think with the women’s, the numbers seemed to dwindle a bit. I think it ran its course up there, more than anything. The numbers just weren’t there to sustain it. I think we were one of the only clubs in Cork for a long, long time with a women’s team.
“We’ve four adult teams up already and very strong underage. We’re very much a community club. That says it all really, we’re open to anything,” Quinlan added.