JUNIOR VETERAN Ballinrobe’s Paul Keane. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin
Leader of the pack
Paul Keane hopes that another cup run is on the cards
PAUL Keane’s rugby career can be split into two clear periods. The first began 18 years ago when he was asked by Marty Carroll to get involved with the Ballinrobe Seconds team which was managed by Peter McHugh. The second started eight years ago when he returned to join the first team in their campaign for promotion back to the top division.
The Ballinrobe second row is in the twilight of his career now but he remains a key man in the second row of a club that are hoping Sunday’s quarter-final clash with Galwegians at the Racecourse could spark another unlikely Junior Cup run. Keane fondly remembers the early years playing on a side that never trained and toured the country.
“Joining the Seconds side that time was a great way to start playing,” he says. “We rarely trained and the emphasis was on the social side of the game. The craic was brilliant. We went on tours to clubs as far away as Clonakilty. Richard Mellotte was captain and I remember Mick and Joni Walsh getting engaged on one of the trips.”
Years later Keane returned to the club he now devotes a large chunk of his free time to. Pat Malone Snr was in charge of a Ballinrobe side that were languishing in the second division, having faded away in the mid-1990s after the best period in the club’s history.
Malone asked Paul to come training and it wasn’t long before he was thrown in at the deep end.
“I had one training session under my belt and I was called up on the Sunday to start in the second row against Dunmore in the league. I could hardly walk after it,” he recalls with a laugh.
Ballinrobe were on the comeback trail and they secured promotion back to the top flight in his second season. By the summer of 2002, Keane was named captain of Ballinrobe for what would turn out to be the most successful campaign since the Junior Cup double side of 1990 and 1991.
After a solid league campaign, they put together a cup run that saw them topple Corrib and Connemara. Victory over Corinthians (in a game they trailed by 22-6 but went on to win 24-22) secured their place in the decider.
The final turned out to be a controversial affair with Buccaneers fielding a number of players who had played regularly in the All-Ireland League that season. Ballinrobe players and supporters were left reeling as the midlanders took the title, out-scoring Ballinrobe by four tries to two. The boot of Alan O’Hara, who had played 15 AIL games that season, proved key to the victory.
“I still to this day feel cheated by that game and I don’t mind saying that,” says Keane. “If you look back at that day, there was close to 2,000 people at that game and nearly every one of them were supporting Ballinrobe. Buccaneers didn’t even come into the clubhouse for drinks after the game, they just went home. That’s not good for the game. I still think people need to seriously look at the value of having senior clubs in this competition.”
The support that day was superb, and over the past four years Ballinrobe fans have come out in force regularly to follow their team. Few if any clubs can match the atmosphere at the Racecourse on a Junior Cup Sunday. In 2004 Buccaneers came in the first round and were sent packing, against all the odds, after a memorable one-point win.
“The support we get in this club is incredible,” Keane observes. “I mean, to see people taking their Sunday afternoons to come down to the Racecourse and climb gates, walk across the track through wet grass to support us is something special. It really lifts the lads to see them there and I think the togetherness in the club is what makes us strong. Very few clubs can match that.”
His wife Josephine has little choice but to love rugby. Last week four of the Keane clan turned out in the black and white of Ballinrobe. Gary, Daniel and Paul are making great progress in the ranks of mini rugby, while Keane insists his youngest, Dylan, is another one to watch out for in the future. Their father is convinced that there is no better club for them to be involved with at this age level.
“Rugby is a great sport for making friendships at all age groups. My lads have met so many of their friends through rugby, which means when they go to secondary school they’ll know so many people from outside their area, which is obviously a great help. It takes kids out of their local environment and helps them mix.”
Keane is confident that the future is rosy for Ballinrobe even with his generation of players all close to retirement. Jim O’Toole, John Flannery and Seamus O’Toole have been in the side with him since the club emerged from Division Two, but the second row believes that when he does eventually decide to call it a day, the shoes will be filled.
“We have a superb underage structure at the moment with players like Padraig Burke making the Irish Youths squad. Hopefully they will make it at a higher level and come back to us later in their careers. But for now, there is a really good structure here and I think playing in Division 2 next year will give us a chance to bring some of these guys through.”