WHEN Argentine full back, Ignacio Corleto, like one of the biblical virgins without her lamp, staggered around under Brian O'Driscoll's Garryowen, I was moved to remark on television that a Bruff full back playing junior rugby in Limerick would have caught that ball. It was my way of acknowledging that every time I watch the mighty John Hayes deliver another performance of courage and strength, I think how fortunate Irish rugby has been that the then raw 17-year-old was attracted to the oval ball game by the small club situated between Kilmallock and Limerick.
In 1969, two 19-year-olds, Nicholas Cooke and Willie Conway, founded Bruff RFC while suspended by the GAA under the foreign games rule. Cooke had played rugby at Rockwell College, but Conway was in the Limerick hurling panel and a rugby neophyte. The first match against Scarriff, in a field behind the Catholic Church, was watched by almost the entire 900-strong population of the village. The Bruff team was without rugby experience and second row Mike Barlow-O'Donnell scrummaged for the entire afternoon with his head between the legs of the prop forward. Happily no damage resulted. The prop went on to father a large family and Barlow-O'Donnell continued to play into his fifties but remained a bachelor.
Lieutenant Colonel The O'Grady, head of the O'Grady clan, was the first president of the club and he bequeathed some land and the gate lodge to his estate for the club's permanent home. Having played rugby while in India with Lord Mountbatten's staff, The O'Grady provided much-needed technical expertise and he was assisted by Liam Westropp-Bennett, son of the first Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, who had learned his rugby at Glenstal Abbey.
Within six years, Bruff reached the semi-final of the Munster Junior Cup, only to be beaten by Tralee after a replay. That performance created huge interest and despite the existence of Rule 27 the rugby club began to make incursions into the hurling hinterland. Many of the team photographs of that era have players looking at the ground rather than the camera.
The abolition of the restrictive practice by the GAA gave rugby a huge competitive advantage in recruitment. The hurling clubs were limited to parish boundaries, whereas Bruff RFC had no such constraints. Facilities also were a potent drawing card. In 1970, Bruff had showers when even the GAA's county ground was without washing facilities.
In 1980 the club made a decision to establish an under-age programme that was to catapult the tiny village team into competition with some of the major clubs in Irish rugby. Today the club fields teams in every age group from eight to 18. The under-11s have emerged victorious on four occasions from the All-Ireland Community games, while nearby Kilmallock, who use the Bruff ground, have triumphed twice. The club has also been All-Ireland champions at under 16 and 18 levels.
Every Sunday morning, hundreds of youngsters from miles around descend on the ground. One mother drove her sons 30 miles from Buttevant to take part.
In successive years, between 2000 and 2002, Bruff reached the final of the All-Ireland competition at under-20. UCC were the opponents in both finals and the honours were shared at one victory each. The University's win was achieved with the help of the Keogh brothers, who had learned their rugby at Bruff. On the way to the finals, Constitution, Belfast Harlequins and Lansdowne had to bend the knee.
LOCALS still talk in awe of some alickadoos from the Dublin club arriving in a helicopter and landing on the pitch. Although the tales of Dublin Four tailgate lunches were probably apocryphal, it must have been a special day for the village when one of the greatest clubs in Irish rugby was humbled.
But Bruff's performances at under-20 level exemplify the dichotomy that is Irish rugby and the IRFU. Under the Clubs of Ireland Scheme, the AIB League clubs receive five times the funding of their junior opponents for under-20 programmes. This year, Bruff will be the sole representative from the junior ranks in the 16-club national competition at that level.
What makes this initiative different from the many clubs around Munster and beyond is that success has followed at adult level. Despite the constant depredations of the voracious senior clubs seeking to strengthen their squads, the club has reached the penultimate stage of the fiercely contested Munster Junior Cup four more times since their first appearance in 1975. This season 13 graduates of the Bruff academy will ply their trade in the AIB League. The problem for Bruff, in an era of declining numbers in the established clubs, is how to cope with expansion.
This year the IRFU expects to post a multi-million euro loss on its operations, while most of its senior clubs teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. Despite annual running costs of about €80,000, Bruff remains solvent because of one key paragraph in the club's constitution. They are not allowed to pay players. They have had their share of the ubiquitous Kiwis and Wallabies that have flooded this island, but the Bruff version found a job and some accommodation was provided. The successors to The O'Grady were not going to sacrifice hard won success on the altar of foreign accents.
Some 23 years ago the Bruff players did not know where to put their heads; for years the many heads were down in pictures to avoid the wrath of a narrow-minded organisation; today heads are high in a small club with a big vision. John Hayes may be the first; he is unlikely to be the last.