Paul O'Kane's City of Derry rebuilding job centres on solid foundations
He's charged with restoring the fortunes of City of Derry Rugby Club but Paul O'Kane admits he had to check Google to discover the exact nature of the role he was stepping into at the club.
Head coach and Director of Rugby, O’Kane has no problem ‘double jobbing’ at Judges Road. Indeed he has been making his mark since taking over during the summer - though only after quick fact-finding mission on the world’s premier search engine.
“I had to google ‘Director of Rugby’ when the job was first put to me to see what I was letting myself in for but turns out it was what I do anyway - hold an overview over everything at the club,” smiles the former Limavady and Strabane coach.
O’Kane has been in situ only a few months but already the green shoots of revival are beginning to appear around a club that had lost its way over recent seasons.
Former players Stephen Lindsay (Youth Co-ordinator), Ian Orr (Skills Coach) and Stephen Sims (under 20s) are back at the club as O’Kane seeks to establish a structure which will make the club self sufficient in terms of producing both players and coaches.
“It was the same scenario when I took over at Limavady in regards trying to reboot things, starting with the youth system,” adds O’Kane, “When I took over Limavady we were almost down to one team and we got them, initially, up to three teams. We had to bring it back a bit because there was no youth though they are now starting to flourish.
“It was a 10 year plan we had there to put them back towards the top end of junior rugby and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Limavady back in Q1 at the end of this season, which would be the eighth year of that plan.
“Strabane didn’t even have a pitch when we went there but now they have a youth section up and running at under 14s so that is the ‘Director or Rugby’ side of things, a double job as such, but that’s my remit.”
O’Kane is acutely aware of the need to attain results on the pitch but stresses Derry’s problem have been more deeply rooted than an under performing First XV and, as such, says patience will be needed.
“Looking from the outside in, you could see this coming at Derry. What has happened to the club didn’t happen in one year, it happened over six or seven years when maybe the eye was taken off the ball a bit.
“I think everybody is swimming in right direction now though. A lot of emphasis has been put on youth and trying to regrow the club from the bottom up. As the one senior club in a city the size of Derry, we should be doing much better. We should be looking to push toward the top end of rugby instead of scratching around at the bottom.”
Foyle College and the Ulster University at Magee - where O’Kane has also taken on a coaching role - are key components of the plan to put the ‘Green and Black’ back among the big hitters in Ulster and Ireland. It won’t happen today or tomorrow but O’Kane believes - with the right structures - Derry can turn their peripheral position in the North West to an advantage.
“Clubs rely on good youth coming through and there has been a stagnation in that regard at City of Derry. Even with the squad now, you are still looking at those players left from that last good influx of Foyle College players to make the Firsts - the likes of Simon Logue, Stephen Corr, Adam Bratton etc.
“Those lads are the last men standing as such. There has been a huge gap and some wasted talent that hasn’t been brought through because there was no pathway through for them.
“We have now appointed Seconds coaches and the idea is to sell the Seconds to players because we want the team to grow to become the best junior club in the area.
“The club are buying into what we are trying to do and it is not just with the Seconds. The thirds over the past couple of season have been viewed as almost a ‘social’ club and they shouldn’t be in a senior set-up. They should be a feeder for your Second team so the aim is to drive towards four teams.
“The way we have done that is to ensure on a Thursday night the Thirds train and play against the Under 18s. The lads that are coaching the Under 18s are captains of the Thirds so it is establishing that link and putting value in the Third team.
“A young player’s first point of contact with senior rugby after coming out of Under 18 is normally with the Thirds. I know last year they were getting thrown in at the deep end but most should progress through the Thirds. One or two exceptional players would go straight to the Seconds and only the elite would be able to step straight into the Firsts but that’s rare.
“What you are trying to do is create that pathway from 18 until 21 to 22 so that young players are in a position to step into AIL rugby. That is where the break down has been at City of Derry over recent years.
“The club have lost talent so we had to put that pathway in place. I know people have been negative about the club but the under 16s won the Ulster League last season. They have five lads involved in the Irish Development squad between Under 18 and 16. I see them training - and believe me - there is some unbelievable talent coming through.
“We are heavily linked in and trying to help Foyle College in terms of rebooting rugby there as well. Rugby may not be at its strongest at the top end of the school but First, Second and Third year has some unreal talent coming through so it’s about trying to marshal that and grow it with one or two sides at times.
“There are 70 players in a pool over the three years so maybe in a few years time Foyle can be grown to a three team school and start dining at the top table once more. It is not rocket science. If City of Derry want to progress, we need Foyle to be a conveyor belt of talent.”
And O’Kane is keen to ensure that the talent he knows is in the North West is not lost to the club once they finish playing as referenced by his decision to bring Stephen Lindsay, Ian Orr and Stephen Sims back on board as coaches while the likes of Richard McCarter retains a key role with the First XV.
“We are trying to create that pyramid structure where you are looking after your players when they are players but also helping them become involved in the coaching. The likes of Stephen Corr, when he decides to hang up the boots in three or four years, he could be a fantastic forwards coach.
“Adam Bratton is 27 but he has ownership of our line-out. These things are an attempt to create our own coaching cycle within the club. It is a double trick of a job but I have already said to the club - and I didn’t want anyone thinking I was crazy - but for what we have resource wise, much of what is untapped at the moment, we should be looking to compete at the top end of rugby not the bottom.
“This year will be a very important year. There are no easy games, especially from where we are coming from but hopefully we can stay safe and rebuild things from there.
“There has been a change in mentality within rugby and it is the youth based, community based model - that’s where we need to plant roots.”