UCD RFC boss Kevin Croke keeping his feet firmly on the ground as the season’s crunch looms

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Christine Coffey caught up with UCD RFC Head Coach Kevin Croke to reflect on the season so far for the club.

After a narrow loss in the UCD Bowl against the leaders of the All-Ireland League (AIL), UCD’s 1st XV find themselves in third position in the table of Ireland’s biggest club rugby competition and with realistic playoff ambitions. Christine Coffey caught up with Head Coach Kevin Croke to reflect on the season so far.

Massive performance from the squad against Cork Con last time around. How much confidence does that give the squad, knowing that they can push the league leaders that close?

“Yeah, the Con game was a big one for us. They had given us quite a kicking the last time around when they put 50 odd points on us. To be in a really good scoreboard position and to lose, that’s tough to take, but that’s why Con are as good as they are; they find a way to win. 

“They’ve buckets of experience, they’ve a load of guys that have played professionally, who’ve played at the top of the AIL for a while and they’ve got a sprinkling of young talented players coming through. For us, the response to the game was, well that’s what we can do. There is confidence that we know we’re not a 50-point loss team to Con, that it is quite close when we get our stuff right.”

Thoughts on the season so far?

“It’s been a really positive season. We got started a little earlier with a little bit more focus than usual this year because we were going on tour to Canada in August, so that was a great energiser and a brilliant way to get loads of guys together and get to know each other. 

“We came back, had a couple of wins. We’re doing well, with the 1sts, 2nds, J2’s all really competing well in their leagues. So, there’s been a general kind of feel good around the club that is probably linking back to getting away on tour.”

6 wins, a draw and a handful of bonus points. What would Kevin Croke have said about 32 points and 3rd spot after 11 games at the start of the season? 

“I would have cut your hand off for it. Now we’re in a position where if we perform well, we can potentially get into a playoff and that kind of stuff at the end of the year. If we knew that we would get across the line in a couple of close ones and that we would be in the position that we are now with two blocks of three games to go, we’d definitely have taken it.”

UCD really owe their position to the ability to grind out results in close games, particularly at home. The Bowl has become a bit of a fortress. What does that mean for the squad?

“We were very fortunate to win a couple of close games. I think that is a huge testament to the players and their attitude towards playing, particularly at home. We’ve also nicked one or two on the road as well which have been really nice, and we’ve had some very strong performances away from home. 

“We could be in a very different league position having played the exact same way as we did and performed as well as we did, but not nicking those couple of last-minute wins. We like playing at home, we like throwing the ball around and we’re happy that we managed to find a way to win in those close ones.”

UCD have always produced lots of players that go on to represent at provincial and international level. How are you finding balancing the player pathway and competing week-in week-out in the AIL? 

“We want players who are ambitious and have the ability to play at provincial and international level. We want this to be an environment where they can come in and develop and pursue their potential to play at that level. I welcome it. It is a challenge, when you’ve got a bit of variability in the squad. 

“I think the way we get around it is players know that in a long league campaign like this it’s very unlikely that you’re going to play every game. There’s going to be injuries and bumps and bangs and things like players being pulled into representative squads, so, I think we’ve got an understanding that there are going to be opportunities for everybody. There’s good healthy competition in the squad.”

What’s the biggest challenge in the upcoming games as we approach the business end of the season?

“We’ve never gotten too carried away with the fact that we’re sitting where we are, that if we’re in the top four or we’re sitting third. That doesn’t matter. What matters is performing and setting ourselves up to perform as well as we can in the next game. So, the biggest challenge across the next couple of games is to maintain that. It’s to just keep playing the game in front of us, to be where your feet are and just play the next opposition, learn from that, play the next opposition, learn from that, play the next opposition. 

“That’s going to be a continual thing. The other thing is to make sure we don’t just sit on our heels. There’s a load of challenges and stresses outside of rugby that come in at the second half of the year, lads start thinking about their exams, we’ve got guys in finals, we’ve got guys who have midterms, we’ve got guys who are looking at their summer and what they’re doing there and just other distractions. The thing is to keep doing as well as we were in the first half.”

What would be success for the squad this season? 

“There’s probably a couple of steppingstones to success in the league. The first one is making sure you’re going be in it next year. The next one for us, (because Trinity are in it), is trying to win the colours game. 

“After that, if you can perform week-on-week and pick up results you get to the final furlong in the league, you can have a look at where you’re going to finish up. Top four would be a nice success for the squad but that’s going to depend on a lot of things and the more immediate challenge is making sure that we perform week-on-week.”