Creggs prop Brian Diffley chats to Kevin Egan about his short time as a professional and what has made Creggs RFC tick this season…
When RTE rugby pundit Daire O’Brien declared rugby to be “the people’s game” in a studio discussion earlier this year, there weren’t too many casual observers outside of South Dublin and Limerick city that would have agreed.
Certainly in places like Roscommon, where there isn’t a rugby club inside the county’s boundaries, whatever eyes were watching the television at that time would have probably rolled fairly high at the idea. The national team is still almost entirely made up of players that attended fee-paying schools, while the groundswell of momentum that came in behind Connacht when they won the Pro 14 league has dissipated in the couple of years since that remarkable victory.
As a player who attended Roscommon CBS but then earned a scholarship to Cistercian College in Roscrea, where he won a Leinster Senior Cup medal in 2015, Brian Diffley has seen both sides of the rugby landscape in Ireland. He has been a driving force behind Creggs’ remarkable season so far this year, a campaign that has left them right in contention to win the Connacht Junior League. He also spent the summer trying to win a Roscommon intermediate championship medal with Oran.
Diffley tried to forge a path through to the professional ranks, but is now happy to be back in the world of amateur, junior rugby — and he knows full well that whatever about the people’s game, it is possible for the sport to make inroads into new territory, with the right approach.
“We’ve got football players, hurlers, lifelong rugby players and all sorts as part of our team this year, and it all works because we understand that everyone has their own life going on. They all have other hobbies and commitments, and we work around that,” observed the NUIG student.
“Creggs would be a great example of where there are team goals, but they don’t look to set hard and fast rules for guys. If you want to live like a professional in terms of diet, training, conditioning, of course they’ll support and encourage, but there’s no sense of enforcing rules on players, saying that ‘you have to give up X or Y’.
“As a team we’ve all agreed that we want to win trophies this year. We want a great year of rugby, but it’s still a sport, a hobby, and we want to have a good time doing it. Nobody will be told to change their lifestyle for the sake of it. There’s not as many sacrifices, but we all want to win, and we want to have fun doing it.
“That’s what works for the squad, and it’s working for the community and the area too — we’re getting good crowds down at our games, people are getting behind us in matches and they’re very supportive. They seem to be enjoying the games and the rugby we play. So it’s good all round,” he explained.
Still only 20 years of age, Diffley has a lot of experience of the sport at different levels behind him, having been part of the Connacht sub-academy, as well as playing schools, college, senior and junior club rugby. He feels that drawing from players with different backgrounds has really helped to enable them to play the type of open, attacking rugby that has seen them win seven out of their eight games so far this season.
“Players and management alike, we enjoy playing a nice style of rugby. Pat (Cunningham) would certainly encourage us to go out there and attack. Ger (Dowd) would have played for Creggs himself and he’d always want to see us move the ball quickly and to really stretch the opposition. It would be a collective approach. It’s what we’re best at, and opponents struggle to deal with it.
“We’re all looking forward to having the 4G pitch ready to go as well. It’ll be massive for us to have that because teams travelling won’t be used to it, and we can be sure we can keep the tempo up and stick to our style,” he pointed out.
After spending two years and completing his Leaving Certificate in the Offaly boarding school, Diffley went to NUIG and simultaneously took on the challenge of trying to make his career as a professional rugby player. He spoke of how he enjoyed the experience and learned from it, but yet seems comfortable in his new reality, where rugby is his pastime, instead of his career ambition.
“I played two years U-19 interpro, and U-17 before that,” he recalled.
“I was with what they call the sub-academy, you train with the academy five days a week. They get paid, but we weren’t, and last March I was told that I wasn’t getting a contract so I left it, went back to playing football and then playing with Creggs after that.
“We would have had contact with the professional guys every day, we would have trained alongside them. I was training to be a prop so I was alongside Denis Buckley and other guys like that. If you needed help with something, they’d help you.
He freely admits that while he was in the system, getting his name onto a permanent contract was his main focus.
“You have to treat it as a pathway to becoming professional because you won’t be able to keep up if you don’t. I rarely would have gone out in college. You’d have training from Monday to Friday. You might be training at 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning when everyone’s going out on Monday night, so I missed a lot of college on account of that too. I should be in third year in college but you pick rugby ahead of college work.
“There would be a huge amount of video work. That was one of the things that I found really tough, possibly the toughest aspect of the whole thing. Every training session was recorded and you’d have to do your own analysis on it. So if we trained on a Monday, I’d have to have my video work done by Tuesday. You might have a 40-minute session so it’s 40 minutes that you’d have to watch, pick out the clips you’re in, and that’s one thing that if I was to get to the next step I would have really had to work hard on it.
“I fully enjoyed my time in there and if someone was offered the chance to take up a similar opportunity, I’d fully advise them to go for it. It’s hard going, you’re working weekends to scrape your money together and do whatever you have to keep going, but I’m glad I did it,” he explained.
He’s not the only one in the Creggs dressing room with experience of full-time rugby, and consequently expectations in the club were high from early on the season, when a 33-30 away win over Connemara hinted at the possibility of something more than simply a battle for survival this season.
“Our first competitive game was a cup game against Connemara, and we knew that was going to be a real test because they came second to Ballina last year and Ballina are up in the AIL now. We beat them, and lads started to believe that anything was possible at that stage.
“The thinking initially was to make sure we got out to a good start, make sure we were mid-table at least and go from there. But things have kept going well. Results have been very good and now we’re expecting to be fairly close to the top of the league at the end of the season.
“James Brandon would have represented Connacht as well up to U-19, Eoghan Coyle would have done the same, so it’s a very exciting team we’d have here in Creggs and the management team is very good as well. Ger Dowd has come from an intercounty set-up and his experiences are of huge value, it’s great to have his voice in the dressing room,” he remarked.
And does he see success with Creggs as a chance to catch the eye of provincial scouts and a backdoor into the Connacht set up once again?
“At the moment my aspirations are all with Creggs. We’ve a team there that can push for AIL. Having come out of that environment, it wouldn’t be set on my mind that I have to get back in. I don’t feel that I have to play pro, I wouldn’t be overly pushed.
“I’m enjoying my rugby. The club is doing incredible work off the field to put in place top class facilities, it’s great to see such positive work at underage level and in Roscommon CBS, so it’s great to be involved with it all. If we can add to that with some silverware on the field, then that’s fantastic,” he concluded.