Niall Rigney enjoying new Portlaoise role
By Cian O'Connell
For Niall Rigney joy can still be found in the journey. Portlaoise recently captured a 12th Laois SFC title in 13 years with Rigney steering them to glory against gritty underdogs Killeshin last month.
Synonymous with hurling in Laois, Rigney, the widely respected former player and manager, did feature at senior club level for his native Portlaoise so he was delighted to get involved in Malachy McNulty’s backroom team last year.
The code didn’t matter, just being involved with Portlaoise again brought a sense of satisfaction and it was a task Rigney wanted to embrace. Only eight years ago Rigney guided James Stephens to hurling glory in Kilkenny, while last month he was in charge as Portlaoise remained on the Laois football summit.
“How it transpired was I was involved with the lads last year,” Rigney replies when asked how he became the Portlaoise boss.
“I came into the set-up last July. I came in as a selector with the management, we won the Championship and were beaten by Kilmacud in the Leinster Club Semi-Final. This year our manager had stepped aside, I was just approached and was asked would I be interested in taking it on.
“The fact I did play football as well as hurling with Portlaoise, I said why not. I've always said I'm not afraid of a challenge and I've been involved in managing down in Kilkenny, Limerick, Tipperary, and my own club on the hurling side.
“So why not try something different and something new? I did and it has been good. I enjoy it, they are a good group to work with, they are good lads.”
Rigney’s respect for a decorated Portlaoise collection of footballers is genuine and how they have remained a powerful force in Laois.
“In fairness the lads are a great group of lads, who are after winning 12 of the last 13 Laois Championships,” Rigney says.
“They are very dedicated and very committed, really all they need is an organiser for them more than anything else because they are very driven themselves. They are just a great group of lads.”
Still, following several years operating elsewhere with various outfits, Rigney acknowledges that it can be tricky managing the native club.
“It is very different,” Rigney states. “What really is different - without being negative by any means - is you are never going to please everybody and everybody who is there thinks they know you well.
“No matter what you do, for as long as I know you can only start 15 and bring in six. There is always going to be somebody not happy and feeling disgruntled if they are not getting a run. The fact that you live here is the most difficult part of it.
“If people could understand and luckily we do. People know me well enough around here that the club is the most important thing, the jersey is everything. That is probably key. You are never going to please everyone.
“If you are an outside guy coming in which I have been in Kilkenny or wherever I was, it is easier do it in those places being able to move on after a training session.
“You don't see them again until the following session. If you are here, you are based in your own club and home town so you are seeing them all of the time.
“There has to be a happy medium. Once people understand that you are only there for the best interest of the players and club itself sure that is all that matters.”
Ultimately, though, trying to improve a team remains the mission Rigney wants to accomplish. Sport brings pleasure.
“Of course, I love it,” Rigney responds. “Probably the biggest thing I've done is that I played up until I was 37. I automatically, maybe mistakenly through inexperience or lack of experience, I went straight into management.
“I took on the club hurlers the year after I finished playing and I probably shouldn't have really. You love it, you love the game, hurling or the football, sure why not?
“I was involved with rugby circles when I was involved in that, I just love being a part of it. What else would we be doing? We are a great nation for sport, we love our GAA, rugby, no matter what it is and isn't it marvellous to be involved.”
Following a hugely successful and encouraging campaign for Eddie Brennan’s Laois hurling team Rigney is adamant about the need to maintain the high standards that have been attained.
“100%, Eddie has been brilliant,” Rigney remarks. “He brought a great attitude and freshness to it and a desire to it. I was part of the selection committee that was involved in getting Eddie.
“It was great for us to get someone of Eddie's profile with what he has achieved as a player. He brought that to the table, it was all based on a serious level of workrate.
“That was the brilliant thing about it, but now he has given them back a bit of an identity, they have created that themselves.
“It is time for them to push on to the next level, to try to compete more regularly with the Dublins and Wexfords maybe, to get to that level of the Waterfords, to be able to compete and to stay there for two or three years.”
The Joe McDonagh Cup triumph and a gutsy All Ireland Quarter-Final display ensures significant hope exists in Laois once more. “They need to believe in what it is about,” Rigney adds. “Inter-county careers are getting shorter, once you can avoid injury. If they realise that they have one chance they have to do something special for a very short period of time, but it is up to them to realise what they are doing in that time.
“If they do that it will be fantastic for all of us former players, coaches, and managers. It would be marvellous to see that and I'm certainly looking forward to the next couple of years. I hope Eddie is with us for the next couple of years, that would be hugely important for us.”
Despite the progress Rigney is realistic about what can be achieved and is enthused by the fact that Derek McGrath will be involved with the Laois minor hurlers. “That will only bring the profile up for the minors side of things,” Rigney stresses.
“The one thing Waterford did have when Derek was there, they were brilliant stickmen. I'm sure that is exactly what is going to happen here now too.
“That is what I would love to see and it is something I tried to do when I was there. It is something that was very evident with Kilkenny when they were at their peak from 2006 right up to 2015, you had your minors, Under 21s, and seniors all playing a similar style.
“Automatically when the young lads are finished minor or Under 21 they can step into senior. That is something I think is hugely important for us to do.
“Whatever Eddie's style is, our Under 20s and minors can bring that and play that similar style. It takes a very simple level of communication. I would love to see something like that being implemented and put in place. I think it will and that is where we need to go. If we do that I think it bodes really well for the future of Laois hurling.
“Let us be honest about it 12 months ago it was on its knees, it was only one way we were going. It was turned around in such a short space of time to win the Joe McDonagh and to get to an All Ireland Quarter-Final was just brilliant.
“Why not try to stay at that level in the Liam MacCarthy, hold our status and keep driving on to better ourselves as players.”
That type of attitude and determination is what Rigney is keen to instill in his Portlaoise players, who are striving to make an impact in the AIB Leinster Club Championship again. Sunday’s tussle at Joule Park, Aughrim against St Patrick’s, who finished strongly against Ferbane promises to be an interesting encounter.
“Definitely, I was at the St Pat's and Ferbane game in Tullamore; in fairness to St Pat's they are a very hard working team and are very honest,” Rigney acknowledges.
“They fully deserved their victory that day, they just overran Ferbane in the last 15 minutes of the game. They have some seriously good footballers, they are on their home pitch in Aughrim so it is going to be a huge challenge for us. We know that.
“I've always said, irrespective of where I've went, we will certainly show them the respect they deserve as Wicklow champions and I'm sure they will do the same for us. It is brilliant to be playing almost into the middle of November with your club which you probably started out with last February.
“There is many a club around the country that would love to be in our or St Pat's position. We are going to enjoy it, we will certainly give it our all and there is a huge prize up for grabs with a place in the Leinster Club Championship Semi-Final.”