Onwards and upwards for St Jude’s
By Damian Dolan
After making it three Gloucestershire senior titles in a row, St Jude’s have now set their sights on the British provincial championship and making some more history.
The last Gloucestershire team to reach the final was Cardiff’s St Colmcilles in 2012 – Southern Gaels, who have roots in St Jude’s, did likewise in 1997.
But no Gloucestershire side has ever lifted the trophy.
History would seem to be against St Jude’s therefore, but the opportunity to become the first side from the county to achieve something extraordinary is not lost on the club, or its manager Brendan Agnew.
Part of the St Jude’s side that reached the semi-finals in 2019, Agnew says the incentive is “massive”.
“Our aim from day one has been to get to the [All-Britain] final, and then whatever happens in the final happens,” the Belfast-native told the Irish World.
“We’re under no illusions that once we step out of Gloucestershire the standard does improve massively, and that we have to lift our game.
“But as a management team this year, that’s our main goal – to go one step further than the club has ever been before.”
St Jude’s, who draw their players mainly from Southampton and Bournemouth, as well as from Portsmouth, were narrowly edged out by Glasgow in that semi-final two years ago.
Agnew’s late goal set up a barnstorming finish at Holly Lane in Birmingham, but the Scottish champions held on to win by 1-12 to 1-9. Agnew’s goal came just too late.
Despite giving a good account of themselves, Jude’s were left “very disappointed”.
For Agnew, some important lessons were learnt from the whole experience, and he intends to do things “a little bit differently” this time around.
“We travelled up on the day and arrived an hour before kick-off, and after a long journey on the bus it took us a while to get going,” he recalls.
Agnew says it was a “great opportunity”, but one senses that what he really means is that it was actually a great opportunity missed. A first All-Britain final was within their grasp.
Jude’s still have numerous survivors within their ranks from that semi-final defeat, and the milestone 4-10 to 1-12 quarter-final victory over Hertfordshire champions Eire Og which preceded it.
Eight of the side that started the recent county final with St Nicks also started the 2019 semi-final with Glasgow.
They are Dan MacBeth, Gary O’Hare, Darragh Bennet, Sean McCullagh, Glenn Costello, Michael McAleer, Gerard O’Mullan and Agnew. And there were six more survivors on the bench against St Nicks.
The St Jude’s chairperson and founder, Kieran Doyle, would have taken that number to nine, but he is currently sidelined with injury.
Further All-Britain experience had been gained in 2018, on the back of the club’s first Gloucestershire title.
A ‘Bye’ in the quarter-finals set up a semi-final showdown with Neasden Gaels at McGovern Park, Ruislip.
Neasden, who could boast Down star Connaire Harrison amongst their number, won by 3-13 to 0-13, but St Jude’s emerged with huge credit.
Two of the London side’s goals came in a whirlwind 60 seconds late on which killed off the visitors’ hopes. Up until then, St Jude’s had more than held their own.
“We gave a good account of ourselves against a very good outfit,” recalls Agnew.
“It was an experience for us and a good introduction to the All-Britain – some of our boys had never played at that standard.”
They’re clearly a team therefore with plenty of past All-Britain experience to call upon, and they’ll be “confident” of their own abilities when they face the champions of Hertfordshire on 3 October in the provincial quarter-finals.
Plenty of time between now and then for Agnew to have his players primed and ready to go, with preparation to be aided by challenge matches against St Nicks and Brighton and Crawley Gaels.
“We’ll slowly build ourselves back up,” he says.
Get past the Hertfordshire champions, and the winners of Scotland and Lancashire await them in the semi-finals on 17 October.
“There’s a lot of belief in this club at the minute and with the panel I have,” said Agnew, who has taken on the role of player-manager this year.
“There’s a good team spirit and a good morale, and we’re moving forwards. The aim of the club is to continue growing, and to try and build a name to keep it progressing.”
This is not a team of stars and there’s no place for “big time Charlies” – no one is bigger than the club itself. That is the St Jude’s mantra.
“We’re a small club trying to make ourselves that little bit bigger,” says Agnew, who was part of the championship wins of 2019 and 2018.
No championship was played in Gloucestershire in 2020 due to Covid.
St Jude’s claimed title number three earlier this month with a 0-14 to 0-12 victory over St Nicks of Bristol at Horspath Athletic Grounds in Oxford.
Three points down inside the opening ten minutes, they fought back to go in level at the break.
Some positional switches and a change in tactics paid off in the second half, and the team’s “fitness and team spirit” saw them over the line.
That the club has been able to overcome the natural “challenges” that go hand in glove with being split across three different cities, to enjoy such success is a remarkable achievement in itself.
In many ways, the club is “over succeeding” observes Agnew.
“We have a lot more difficulties than other teams, to bring these three cities together just to get a team out,” he says.
But it’s not just on the field that the club is making strides. This year saw St Jude’s acquire its own pitch at Test Park sports ground in Southampton, in partnership with Solent University and Southampton Rugby Club.
“The club is moving forwards and we’re doing very well,” adds Agnew. And there could be even better days yet to come.