A Cup Final that had Everything…

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Surprisingly, before last Sunday’s final it had been 10 years since the fiercest of Senior Cup rivals last met at this stage of the competition. That day a monstrous forward unit and a Luke Fitzgerald inspired backline eventually wore down a feisty Clongowes challenge fronted by Irish internationals Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden. Many people still recall Kearney setting off down the Lansdowne Road pitch in the dying moments with five Blackrock players dangling off him as he desperately sought to drag his team back into the game. Three tries in the last five minutes saw Blackrock win out 24-9 and the Irish fullback still ranks the defeat amongst his greatest of disappointments in the game.

But despite the setback, Kearney didn’t allow himself to wallow in defeat for too long. His maturity pointed him in the direction of his next game and the career that evidently beckoned. All in all, Clongowes and Blackrock have produced some of Ireland’s greatest players in recent years and at the RDS last Sunday it became quite clear that the future of Irish rugby remains in good hands.

In the days after tasting defeat in a fixture of this magnitude, players will often find themselves poring over all facets of their performance. For a time the end of the world seems nigh. They will think of a pass that was never passed, a tackle that slipped their grasp, an occasion that had slipped them by. But in truth there is little more that Noel McNamara, Brett Igoe, Eamon Jackman and Pat Kenny could have asked of their charges. It was a performance that had everything but the trophy in Clongowes’ hands.

The Blackrock fans will have felt short changed for their seat allocation such was the nature of this contest. For almost the entire first half, Blackrock were camped deep inside the Clongowes ‘22’ throwing everything in their armoury at a miserly defence. For 28 minutes, Clongowes somehow stood firm but the intensity of the blue and white barrage was bound to take its toll. When Hugo Keenan immediately compounded Conor Oliver’s opening score, nervous energy permeated through the Clongowes support. How many more would follow?

That Blackrock returned to the dressing room at the break with only 14 points to their name is something of a mystery. Time and time again ferocious tackling, forward passes and crooked feeds, foiled their effort. Indeed it wasn’t until Alan Hughes lined up a kick at goal late in the second half that Clongowes could venture into opposition territory. Hughes had certainly polished his kicking skills in the lead up to the game and his three points offered Clongowes a glimmer of hope in the face of the steep mountain that was to be confronted in the second period.

A confidence that belied

It would have been a great travesty had this fine Clongowes outfit not had the opportunity to exhibit their wares at the RDS. One must wonder whether this realisation dawned on them as they refreshed themselves during the interval, for when they returned to the fray they exuded a confidence that belied the first half we had just witnessed – they saw that the challenge was not beyond them. When Fergal Cleary drove his robust frame through several hits to score just three minutes after the restart, an electric volt replaced the anxious tension in the stands and Clongowes began to breathe. Game on.

In the majority of writings dedicated to previewing the Senior Cup Final, Blackrock were already being proclaimed as champions. With the week that was in it, it was somewhat inevitable that comparisons with the class of ’96 (featuring a little known unused substitute by the name of BOD) were being drawn. Perhaps Blackrock were fazed by such pressure, but throughout this campaign it was players such as Cleary, Stephen McVeigh and Cian O’Donoghue that merited more rightful claims to such distinction. Nevertheless only the ultimate victors could claim any legacy. So when O’Donoghue raced through, having been released by Cillian Burke, the purple momentum allowed minds to contemplate a historic triumph, for it was a score befitting of a champion side. The try was O’Donoghue’s fifth of the competition – some return for a converted prop.

Unfortunately, when Clongowes pounced there was still plenty of time on the clock. Once Sean Kearns had restored parity with a routine penalty, Blackrock returned to the Clongowes half to power their way to the line. Having exerted every ounce of energy in withstanding the early onslaught and in the subsequent revival, Clongowes could do little to prevent ‘Rock captain Nick Timoney from breaking their hearts with a crushing pushover score.

At the sounding of the final whistle both sets of supporters remained in their seats to salute the efforts of their heroes. Blackrock claimed the trophy, but Clongowes claimed the admirers.

Blackrock College 22; Clongowes Wood College 17

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When Rugby and History Rhyme

Clongowes Wood College 27, St. Andrew’s 12

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Last Tuesday one of the most important milestones in the history of Clongowes, the purchase of the school property for £16,000 by Fr. Peter Kenney SJ in 1814, was marked quietly in the school in advance of the year of celebrations, which will commence in May. Not content with this, fate intervened and ensured that the school community would gather in Donnybrook on the 200th anniversary of Fr. Kenney’s wily investment to urge on the Senior Cup Team at the penultimate hurdle.

Having been brushed aside by St. Andrew’s in the previous round, our Jesuit peers at Gonzaga urged us to approach this important day with caution. Despite not having made an appearance at the semi-final stage of the Senior Cup since they last won the competition in 1922, St. Andrew’s tested the Clongowes resolve to an extent that not many would have foreseen. Indeed, those looking on might have questioned their eyesight when consulting the scoreboard at the half-time break. It was like having your birthday cake laid out in front of you, only for your little sister to start blowing out the candles.

At first there was an air of inevitability about the result – Rowan Osborne, Colm Mulcahy and Will Connors all made early inroads – but a skewed Alan Hughes penalty attempt and a subsequent hit on Cian O’Donoghue intimated that such a notion was wide of the mark. The Booterstown boys were on a mission. Reluctant to commit too many men to the breakdown, St. Andrew’s fanned across the park shutting down the space for the much-vaunted purple backline. Closer to the rough and tumble meanwhile, their aggressive forward unit wrought havoc by any means necessary.

As Clongowes cleared their lines following another faltering incursion by St. Andrew’s the latter’s quick-thinking right wing Jordan Larmour sensed an opportunity. Catching even the Setanta Sports TV crew off guard, Larmour raced to the touchline and quickly returned the ball to play. Clongowes were immediately in trouble and, before they could recover, fullback Andrew Fogarty, who had noticed Larmour’s intentions, took full advantage by touching down in front of rapturous support.

Leaving the field 7-3 to the good at the break, St. Andrew’s had pep in their step as they departed to a standing ovation; it was clear that they didn’t want the half to end. Clongowes on the other hand were glad to regroup and devise an approach to prevail over what had grown into a vigorous threat to their cup ambitions.

Seasoned campaigners to the rescue

Eventually it would be the experience gained by several returning members of the 2013 campaign that proved invaluable in confronting the St. Andrew’s challenge. While the half-time intervention by the Clongowes coaching team ensured that the intensity levels would jump a few notches, it was the seasoned campaigners who fashioned a tempered resurgence in the second-half. At pivot, Fergal Cleary began to exert his considerable influence on proceedings while Stephen McVeigh was immense throughout, forcing several turnovers and making some outstanding carries. Their presence and influence ensured that there was no need to pull any hairs out just yet (Thank goodness…Ed).

In the event it took just two minutes of the second-half for Clongowes to reassert themselves. Following another infringement by a St. Andrew’s pack living on the edge, captain Cleary – confident of a well-oiled set piece – opted to kick for the corner. John Molony, who had just returned to the fray for a second time having received treatment for a ferocious tackle he had dished out earlier on, held his nerve and found his man in the throw, prompting a rolling maul that saw Josh Pim begin to turn the Clongowes screw.

Yet St. Andrew’s were not yet ready to bow the knee in reverence. While two overruled tries through Conor Gleeson and Pim might have given them further reason to believe, what it really told us was that Clongowes were finally punching holes with purpose. Although Alan Hughes, having found his range, kept the scoreboard ticking over, the demoralising blow would not come until the 67th minute, when the otherwise quiet Cian O’Donoghue pounced on a mistake that allowed him to race down the left-wing for his customary contribution. Hughes added the extras to kill the tie as a contest.

Ten minutes later, McVeigh – whose brother Joe played against Blackrock in the 1995 final – deservedly claimed some of the spoils, having broken down the blindside of a scrum deep in the opposition ‘22. To their credit, St. Andrew’s were determined to make the most of their day in the limelight and few begrudged them having the final say when their impressive lock Jonny Guy, bundled his way to the line in the last play. They had provided a fairytale element to this year’s competition.

And so, following a few wobbly renditions on Tuesday, the Womba will return to the RDS on Sunday March 16th when our old friends at Blackrock College will provide the opposition for the tenth time in a Senior Cup Final. Ten years ago, the same two sides met at Lansdowne Road when Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden took to the field in a kit that harked back to the early days of Clongowes’ rugby history. Although the all-white strip failed to inspire them that afternoon, it is hoped that the bicentennial celebrations will add an extra incentive next week.

When Fr. Kenney SJ turned the keys in the castle door in 1814, the prospect of his institution celebrating its 200thyear while under the stewardship of a Jesuit Pope would have been incomprehensible. When Fr. Michael Sheil SJ led Clongowes to their second Senior Cup title in 1978, the prospect of facing St. Andrew’s in the penultimate fixture while en route to a fourth final in five years would have been unfathomable. But times change. Happy birthday Clongowes!