O’Sullivan: Rise of Highfield still work in progress
By Daire Walsh
Following three promotions in just five seasons, Cork side Highfield are set for a huge leap forward when they begin their All-Ireland Division 1B campaign against Malone at Woodleigh Park tomorrow afternoon.
Given that they were operating in the fourth-tier of club rugby as recently as April 2016, there may be a perception from the outside that the Leesiders will struggle to scale the same heights as they did in previous years.
Club captain Fintan O’Sullivan is bullish about their hopes, revealing Highfield have set themselves an ambitious target for the campaign.
“We feel like we’re there or thereabouts with most of them. Banbridge, Armagh, Malone, Old Wesley, they all came from Division 2A.
“The last five years we got back-to-back promotions. Then came second, came second, and came first last year,” said O’Sullivan.
“We’re not really used to just being mid-table. We’re kind of thinking top-four, minimum. I know a lot of people don’t back us, but we always back ourselves. Everyone keeps telling us that it’s a big step and all this crack, but I think we’re ready for it.”
It certainly helps that Highfield have returned with the nucleus of the 2018/19 squad — which finished 10 points clear of Munster counterparts Cashel on their way to claiming the Division 2A title. Thanks in no small part to a thriving underage section, the standards in training are increasing with each passing season.
“We got a big influx last year, about 10 players. We’ve held onto all of them, barring two who moved to Dublin.
“We got a prop, two scrum-halves, and it’s pretty much the same team after that. We got a load of young lads in and we’ve got a pretty strong U20s team also. We’ve 40 lads training now and we get to run two teams against each other. I think we’re doing all the right things.”
Navigating Highfield’s voyage through the domestic ranks has been player-coach Tim Ryan, who previously lined out for the likes of Munster, Toulon, and Dragons in the professional game. He assumed this dual role upon his return to Ireland in 2014 and hasn’t looked back.
“He was kind of falling out of the professional scene and I think someone approached him, ‘Would you have any interest in coaching as player/coach?’. He came out from being a tighthead with Newport Gwent Dragons to playing number eight for us,” O’Sullivan said of Ryan.
“He’s older  but he’s one of the best players on the pitch. He is just one of these guys that has it. He’s been brilliant for the club and will leave a legacy there for sure.”
Though Division 1A champions Cork Constitution have consistently flown the flag for the county in the upper echelons, they are now receiving much-needed competition on that front. UCC retained their top-flight status courtesy of a play-off victory over Old Wesley in May, with Highfield now just a single division below their big-city rivals.
“When I was 16, 17, I remember going to Con and Dolphin down in Musgrave Park. That was the game, there was no one else. Now you’re going down to the Mardyke and watching Con and UCC. There’s six senior clubs in Cork, which is good going. We’re just keeping the head down and ploughing on in the meantime,” said O’Sullivan.