The Hospital Cleared

 

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It is something of a rarity that a Clongowes team has embarked upon a Senior Cup campaign with such little hype; the forgotten men ate a hearty dinner on Thursday night.

Although 30 minutes of the first-half gave Clongowes a sample of ad infinitum –they ultimately prevailed in Donnybrook with a definition of intelligence honed beyond the schoolbooks – common sense in action.

It was a frustrating game of pinball for much of the opening stages with both sides apparently eager to return the ball from whence it came. The sleek 4G surface at Donnybrook has its many plaudits but there were times when a spludge of sticky mud would not have gone astray.

Although Clongowes afforded them plenty of opportunity, to their credit The King’s Hospital began with a purpose that belied their status as rank-outsiders. From the moment the game kicked off, more and more purple territory was conceded to a point that the KH full-back would have been forgiven for interjecting with Adele’s “hello from the other side…” and even then he only ventured there on occasion.

Given their efforts it was inevitable that KH would be first to make an impression on the scoreboard (0-3, 15mins), but when Florence McCarthy bundled over the line following some good work by Patrick Nulty, it was hoped that the Wood had finally woken from their slumber. Ben O’Shea converted and it was business as usual (7-3, 24mins)… surely?

Through an evolving rugby infrastructure, The King’s Hospital have endeavoured to become a force on the schools’ scene. This performance will therefore have come as no great surprise to the Clongowes coaching ticket. Nevertheless, messrs. Igoe, Wright and Kenny were powerless to prevent a rangy and industrious KH pack force a pushover try and reestablish their lead just three minutes later (7-8). Indeed, but for their profligacy in the final third and an earlier intervention by Michael Silvester, the void should have been far greater as the break approached.

Despite the forgoing it was actually Clongowes who managed to stick their neck out in front prior to the interval – winning ugly, winning nonetheless. Tackling played a big part in so doing, and the likes of McCarthy, Sean McCrohan and Sean McMahon showed how useful they might be on the scene if a horse bolted. Uncomfortable under bouts of intense physical pressure, KH began to cough up penalties like the common flu and O’Shea duly obliged on two occasions (13-8).

While the scoreboard might not have offered a true reflection on proceedings at half time, KH’s eagerness to address the matter began to expose their inexperience at this level. A further penalty swiftly followed the restart and O’Shea’s boot gave Clongowes some breathing space, knocking more wind out of the Hospital in the process (16-8, 37mins).

The ability of this Clongowes side to transcend mistakes will stand them in good stead as they progress through this competition. Despite the dropped balls, loose passes and bad decisions that pockmarked the first-half, Clongowes had returned for the second utterly unaffected. Even when out-half Tom Monaghan was withdrawn through injury, they seemed unperturbed. Silvester stepped seamlessly into the breach and produced a performance that will go some way to exorcising the ghosts of cup season’s past.

Strong in contact and wily in attack, Silvester was a pivotal influence on Thursday’s proceedings. As keen defenders buzzed around the fringes, Silvester operated as a sticky flytrap and his outside men duly prospered. Miles O’Connor was one such beneficiary and he provided a moment that will dominate dormitory analyses over the coming days in evading the clutches of several would-be tacklers in a 50yard dash to the line (21-8, 45mins).

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Finally the various personalities of the Clongowes dressing room began to reveal themselves. Sean McCrohan (who would not look out of place opposite Jamie Roberts next week) began to impose his considerable athleticism on the contest. Whenever his momentum began to build it was hard to see how he might be stopped – in that eventuality though one of his henchmen was always in tandem. Patrick Nulty was particularly busy all afternoon and was justly rewarded with a try on 52 mins, converted by O’Shea (28-8).

Prop Joseph Martin also began to get in on the act. Gathering the ball inside his own half, Martin ploughed into enemy territory with several foes hanging on for dear life. Having finally shaken them off, Martin opted to offload to one of his more agile colleagues. Naturally it was Nulty who assumed possession and he shipped it left to Dan Sheehan, before Silvester, O’Shea and O’Connor ensured Brian Maher had a safe passage to the corner in front of the Clongowes contingent (33-8).

This Clongowes side is not invincible, but they showed tremendous character and efficiency on Thursday. Those attributes, allied to their evident skill, make for a formidable coalition.

 

Clongowes Wood College: Michael Silvester, Fiachra Lynch, Miles O’Connor, Benjamin O’Shea, Brian Maher, Thomas Monaghan, Joseph Murphy, Joseph Martin, Daniel Sheehan, Edward Carroll, Jack Moore (Captain), Florence McCarthy, Patrick Nulty, Sean McMahon, Sean McCrohan.

Replacements: Tadhg Dooley, Arthur Odlum, Gareth Graham, Andrew Kelly, David Jeffares, Joseph Gilmartin, Conrad Daly, Reinis Lemess.

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A New Dawn for Donnybrook

As featured in Leinster Rugby v Bath match programme (16/01/16)

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For Leinster fans of a certain vintage, Donnybrook will always be the home of Leinster Rugby. Hatted and hooded of a Friday night, ignoring the bitter wind sweeping through from the Wesley end, it was here that the hardened supporter first welcomed the likes of Shaggy, Mal, Reggie and Victor into their lives. It was also where their inner-Hook shone through as they assessed whether Brian O’Driscoll would ever make it in the game as they sipped on a flask of hot whiskey.

Sadly, it was also the draw of these players that sounded a death-knell of sorts for the stadium. The burgeoning success of the provincial side meant that the rusty turnstiles could no longer accommodate the crowds. As the Leinster fanbase continued to flourish, the old sodden ground was to be found idle in the echoes of cheers from the RDS.

Many less illustrious names from throughout the province will be familiar with the anxious feeling that often greeted them as they awoke on the morning of a game at Donnybrook. With their boots cleaned and a kitbag neatly packed, the 11am pitch inspection often unraveled lofty ambitions for the day ahead. A veritable mudbath by the spring, for many years Sandymount strand was relocated to the stadium to ensure that fixtures could be fulfilled… to some extent at least.

But as the legends of the Phoenix and Luke Fitzgerald have taught us – sometimes you just have to die a little to rise again…

Following an application grounded upon the amateur game, the Government announced that Leinster Rugby would be the subject of a special €750,000 grant in 2014. With an emphasis on the game at grass roots level, it was determined that these funds should be applied in a way that would best cater for the large contingent that take to the Donnybrook pitches each year. The consequent development of two 4G pitches in addition to the 2008 renovation of the Main Stand has seen the old ground become a focal point of Irish rugby once again.

Traditionally the HQ for the Leinster Schools’ Senior and Junior Cups, less heralded school leagues and competitions have also become a feature of the revised stadium calendar which now guarantees up to 40 hours of rugby every week. Remarkably, almost 50,000 parents, peers and patrons poured through the gates to watch their loved ones shed blood, sweat and tears for their school in 2014/2015.

With the Donnybrook stage providing greater exposure to provincial coaches, underage representative sides had a more cosmopolitan feel last year with a wide variety of schools in the mix. Ten games featuring the Leinster Schools, Youths and U20’s teams took place on the new surface that is also used by the Newcastle Falcons and Saracens. Upon returning to their respective clubs and schools, each player undoubtedly reflected upon a proud moment in their budding career and set their sights on further opportunities. As the breeding ground for the senior side alongside the Leinster A set-up, almost 7,000 fans availed of several chances to cast their eye over the next generation.

 

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Beyond the Leinster scene, the IRFU have also recognised the quality of the updated facilities now at Donnybrook. Having successfully hosted the English last February, the Irish U20 side will look forward to welcoming Italy, Scotland and Wales in the 2016 U20 Six Nations, while in another coup for the stadium the Irish Women’s side will vacate their tenure at Ashbourne to engage the same nations in Dublin 4.

Announcing the venues last September, IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora commented that “the playing surface at Donnybrook Stadium is one of the best in the county and should allow both teams to play great rugby. Having watched the U20s there in 2015 I was really impressed with the stadium and I believe it will now bring something extra to the women’s game too.”

Donnybrook has also been keen to engage with regional competitions, communities and charities. In addition to hosting various club finals, several fun-filled events took place throughout the year including blitz days and tag rugby tournaments. A highlight of the season was when the Irish Legends took on their English counterparts in the Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup. Each event – whether for juveniles or those tipping the opposite end of the scale – has helped to further the cause of rugby at base level as had been envisaged by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

So while the RDS will bellow upon the visit of Bath this evening, many fans will rest easy in the knowledge that their spiritual home – having hosted almost 90,000 spectators last season – continues to teem with life just around the corner.

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A Cistercian Year

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As featured in the Leinster Rugby v Bath match programme (16/01/16)

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Wednesday, February 11th 2015: A date that will live long in the memory of all those associated with Cistercian College Roscrea. As news from Donnybrook emerged, past-pupils from yester-yesteryear sent out their homing pigeons to contact old pals while those in closer vicinities met for a celebratory pint. Blackrock College’s season had just gone down the Swanepoel and onlookers were finally beginning to believe the hype.

 

“Knocking that Blackrock side out of the competition gave the team a massive boost of confidence,” Roscrea captain Tim Foley revealed when asked to reflect on a momentous year. “Given their history and how tough they always are to play against, coming out on top in that battle was psychologically huge at a critical point of the season and it really set us up for the rest of the campaign.”

 

From his berth at inside centre, Foley was at the fulcrum of a side that boasted several notable contributors under the auspices of their coach Pieter Swanepoel. Alongside Foley, the likes of Dylan Travers, Dylan Murphy, Tim Carroll and Alan Tynan all added to a legitimate claim to the Leinster title. However, even from the dizzying heights of a semi-final, many still felt that CCR’s romantic adventure would crumble, an assumption founded largely upon an apparent failure to address their unconvincing form for much of the early season – including a loss to Newbridge College in the league final. “It was frustrating because we just weren’t where we wanted to be as a team,” Foley explains. “Despite having the personnel we were performing quite poorly in terms of results. We badly needed to sharpen our focus post-Christmas. I think we achieved that.”

 

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As fate tends to have it, Newbridge awaited Foley’s men in the semi-final of the cup. Having earned much praise for the manner of their victory over Blackrock, Roscrea were quickly installed as favourites for the tie – not that the Kildare men took any notice. Indeed Newbridge very nearly gave CCR a taste of their own medicine in the final moments of the 8-8 draw on March 4th, before also taking the replay to the death five days later. It was a steep learning curve for the Roscrea men. While they had prevailed against all the odds in the previous round, the semi-final bouts provided the real test of their character.

 

March 17th doesn’t often feature in Roscrea’s fixture calendar. In the competition’s 128year history, the school had contested (and lost) four finals. But despite history weighing heavily upon their young shoulders, Foley suggests that his troops were unperturbed by the task at hand. “We were incredibly relaxed. I think it was important that we decided to travel from the school on the day of the game. This meant that we could maintain the same routine in the lead-up to the final and not build it up too much for ourselves. On the morning we gathered for breakfast, a prayer and then we enjoyed a pre-match meal before hopping on the bus to Dublin.”

 

To Belvedere College’s peril, Swanepoel’s charges reserved their best performance of 2015 for the biggest stage. Foley was particularly instrumental in converting a Travers try, creating one for Daniel Keane and adding two penalties to secure a deserved 18-11 win.

 

Victory over Belvedere College that afternoon is indicative of the developing rugby programme in the Roscrea. As Foley demonstrates: “Back when I was in first year we would have been delighted if one of our teams qualified for the cup. I think there’s a lot of expectation now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The whole mindset of the place has changed and this was coupled with a step-up in the quality of our gymwork, our skills, our attitude towards nutrition and our recovery. While the lads coming through mightn’t thank us, we’re no longer a surprise package, but despite a few injuries I still see them getting a few results this year.”

 

The extraordinary thing about the Roscrea side of 2015 is that they will probably never be perceived as one of the great schoolboy sides – perhaps they are not, but they must be about the best middling side of them all. Not that Foley is concerned. “Obviously it was an amazing day and an unforgettable experience, but one of the things that actually stands out for me is when Tim Carroll went up to collect his medal. He hadn’t put a foot wrong all day and ended up falling onto the stage.” Photographers inevitably captured the awkward moment but in preying on Carroll’s misfortune all that is great about schools rugby was simultaneously revealed – a bunch of fun-loving friends having just realised a life-long ambition. Bring on the 2016 edition!

Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

As featured in Leinster Rugby v Connacht Rugby (01/01/16)

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“I suppose you could say mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” says Rob Forbes when pressed on the rise of rugby in St. Fintan’s High School in Sutton. “It’s funny how these things tend to pan out. Back in 2001 I introduced the game to my PE class and it just happened to strike a chord with them. Soon they were taking on the hierarchy looking to field a team. I was wondering what I had done – but now look at us!”

Rooted in the traditions of the Christian Brothers, Gaelic Games has been the predominant sport of choice for most pupils of St. Fintan’s since it first opened its doors in 1943. Aside from a brief flirtation in the 1970’s, the school did not embrace rugby until the turn of the century – to have advocated the cause before then would have amounted to treason!

 

“The powers that be gave it some thought and allowed it on the basis that it co-exist with the sports that were already integrated into school life,” says Forbes. “In any event we had no allocated budget and we had to compete for resources with a variety of established games. A lot of the credit must therefore go to people like Daire Higgins, Peter Pemlerick and a number of past-pupils who gave it their all in the early days.”

Eagerness aside, Forbe’s PE class happened to have plenty of ability too and they have the proud distinction of representing the school in a competitive fixture for the very first time in 2003. That year they progressed to the final of Section A of the Junior Cup, losing 3-0 to St. Patrick’s Classical School, Navan – a cracker by all accounts! By the time the same group arrived on the senior scene they availed of a restructuring of the competitions, ultimately triumphing in the Development Cup of 2006 and in so doing put St. Fintan’s clearly on the Leinster rugby map.

By nature of any school sport there have been peaks and troughs in the intervening years. But an infrastructure put in place by Forbes has seen rugby in St.Fintan’s steadily develop on both collective and personal levels.

Following a few quiet campaigns in the aftermath of their second Development Cup success in 2009, the school have pushed on with great gusto in recent years. Last year the Junior side retained both the Junior B league and the Fr. Godfrey Plate, while the Seniors claimed the Section A league for the first time before a historic victory over St. Columba’s in the Vinnie Murray Cup. Although they subsequently fell short against Pres. Bray, they would have delved further into that competition but for the bounce of a ball.

Amidst this success several players have also risen to prominence. Foremost amongst these has been Andrew Feeney who already has an international cap to his name and captained the Leinster U18 club side to Interprovincial success in 2014. Jack Aungier, an imposing tighthead, will follow suit this year, while hot on their heels are the likes of Danny Achimugu, James McCourt and Sean Cribbin – all of whom are likely to drive the St. Fintan’s challenge in the coming months.

“It was a huge honour for the school to be part of the Leinster Schools’ Cup draw for the third year in succession,” admits Forbes. “I really believe in what we have here, but if I had told you that 15 years ago you wouldn’t have taken me seriously. Now we’re invited to the House of Lords alongside the Blackrock’s of this world with Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton drawing our name from the hat. I don’t think the boys quite realise it the magnitude of it – they just want to get in the ring and give it a good shot. And they will.”

“We’re lucky to have enjoyed some amazing support through the years. For instance, the parents of the current Senior side recognised their potential some years ago and they have done all they can to ensure that they realise it. Mary Fox, our Headmistress, who has been an incredibly powerful ally, has further embellished this. She has facilitated our taking of rugby to the next level and put the structures in place so that we can compete with some of the best schools in the province. It’s an exciting time for us all.”

Given their limited rugby history, St. Fintan’s can be assured of much neutral support when they take to the field in their scarlet and gold quartered cup jerseys in the New Year. Both Senior and Junior sides have been dealt interesting ties against Templeogue College (Vinnie Murray Cup) and Catholic University School (Fr. Godfrey Cup) respectively. But no matter what the outcomes may be, all will take heed that the mighty oak continues to grow.