IN A county where rugby stumbles into fourth place in terms of team sports participation — and also falls behind all its Munster counterparts in terms of player resources — it says a huge amount about Ennis RFC and this group of players that they have gallantly battled into the final of the Munster Cup.

One person who has played a huge part in that success is prop forward Aaron Hennessey (16), who would know all about underdog stories being a proud Ballyea native.

Aaron, along with his teammates David McNamara and Ikem Ugwueru have also been recognised by being the latest Ennis starlets enlisted by Munster Clubs at underage level.

Ikem (17) has taken his development a step further by being called up into the Ireland U18 squad and has just returned to Ennis duty after being part of the Munster U19s who beat Japan 17-7 two weekends ago, where he received a wandering fist into the nose for his troubles.

“It’s the gym every morning for me, pitch every day of the week. Two with Ennis and the rest with Munster Clubs. It’s going all year, there’s no break”, he said, adding that the pair will be playing games with Munster over Easter.

Another ingredient to overcome for Ennis-based players such as Ikem to succeed at a high level is the reluctance of some local schools to welcome rugby into their sports programmes. While Rice College are running a now relatively successful rugby program, 12 of the Ennis U18 players (including Leaving Cert student Ikem) attend St Flannan’s, traditionally a GAA school, where they have no outlet to develop their skills despite attempts by the Munster branch to bring the sport into the biggest school in Clare.

With their attention turned to Thomond Park this Sunday, Ikem and Aaron sat down with The Clare People on Friday night before training at Lee’s Road to discuss their excitement ahead of their showdown with Garryowen. It’s a tight group which have, for the most part been together since U8 level.

“We’re training every day. It’s really time consuming,” explained Aaron, who splits his time between Ennis and Munster sessions as well as gym work before school.

“It’s the gym every morning for me, pitch every day of the week. Two with Ennis and the rest with Munster Clubs. It’s going all year, there’s no break”, he said, adding that the pair will be playing games with Munster over Easter.

Regarding the final, and what it means to represent Ennis, he said, “I’ll take huge pride, especially going out in Thomond Park getting to wear the jersey, it’s a big occasion.”

He added that wearing the red and black means you’re representing the Banner County and not just its capital town — a mantra encapsulated by the club’s anthem, My Lovely Rose Of Clare. Aaron joked, “I’m out in Ballyea so I’m a culchie all the way — but all the Ballyea crowd will be out cheering me. It’s very important to the club.”

Ikem said that he’s now fully concentrating on his rugby, despite starring for Eire Og in football and Avenue in soccer.

“I’m fairly occupied with it every week,” he says of the training. “Gym and pitch sessions sometimes every day of the week bar match day.”

He even took time out last weekend to train with the Ireland U18 panel in Dublin, but says his focus will fully be on Ennis come next weekend.

“It’s huge, it’s our first Munster final and it’s the first one ever for the club. I’m delighted to be in that team that’s in that final,” he says, adding confidently, “and we’re definitely going to win”.

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Stuart returned to his native county to join The Clare People team as a reporter having spent his 20s studying and working in Dublin with the national media. The Ennis native most recently worked as a subeditor with the Irish Daily Star for three years before which he worked as a subeditor with the Irish Independent and as a reporter with The Evening Herald. He holds a BA in Journalism and Visual Media from Griffith College Dublin. Contact Stuart at [email protected]

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