Jonas Gutiérrez: A Modern Toon

As Featured on Pundit Arena, Monday April 18 2016 

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In July 2008, Newcastle United signed Jonas Gutiérrez. The Argentine international would go on to play 187 times for the club. Despite relegation from the Premier League in 2009, Gutiérrez decided to remain on Tyneside and help in the quest for promotion.

His dedication to the cause endeared him to the Toon army and cult status was assured. It was therefore with deep regret that they learned of Gutiérrez’s ill health at the end of the 2013 season. Despite making an inspirational comeback two years later, Gutiérrez was released.

This week Gutiérrez successfully sued the club for the way he was treated following his cancer diagnosis. The debacle is the latest in a long line of shambolic incidents at St. James’ Park.

Newcastle United boasts the proudest of followings in England. Despite being surrounded by one of the poorest areas in the country, you’d be hard pressed to find an empty seat at St. James’ Park. With 52,000 fanatical supporters packed into the ground on a regular basis you’d have thought that they are treated to regular footballing feasts; instead the club trudges along through quagmires of controversy.

Newcastle survived, albeit with a last-minute own goal on the final game of the campaign.

Having enthralled the city as a player during the 1980’s, St. James’ Park was packed to capacity once again with Keegan at the helm. Despite limited experience in the role, Keegan was acutely aware of what the Geordie faithful wanted – he talked a good game and delivered a better one as Newcastle stormed into the new Premier League.

But Keegan was not content to take his team to such heights merely to make up the numbers. He understood the expectations of the Toon Army. In Rob Lee and the prolific Andy Cole, the genesis of a competitive side was already in place while the additions of Peter Beardsley, Ruel Fox and Darren Peacock further helped the Magpies to defy the sceptics.

Newcastle duly finished third in their first Premiership venture, their highest league finish since 1927.

The return of Beardsley to Tyneside was a particularly astute manouvere by Keegan. In Newcastle, the football team is a source of immense pride and identity. Youngsters grow up under the shadows of St. James’ Park hoping to one day emerge under its bright lights. While anyone who furthered their cause was appreciated, local lads were the heartbeat of the team. Keegan’s captivation of Tyneside inspired homegrown talent like Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne, the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1988.

But in typical Newcastle United style, the aspirations of the football team were tempered by a boardroom’s preference to cash in on its most prized assets. The Magpies returned to the Second Division a year later.

Over the next few years Keegan supplemented his side with further quality in Phillipe Albert, David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Shaka Hislop. When David Batty and Faustino Asprilla were added to the ranks in early 1996, Newcastle were 12 points clear at the summit of the English football. Where once Keegan enthralled Tyneside, his team now entertained Sky Sports’ wide-reaching audiences.

They seemed destined to claim the spoils, and nobody could begrudge them – aside from Alex Ferguson. Following a stream of slim victories, a Manchester United side comprised of kids and led by Eric Cantona pipped them to the post as Keegan capitulated in front of the cameras. The club has never recovered.

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It seems a long time since the heady heights of January 1996. In the interim many a journalist has scraped his barrel of words to castigate all aspects of the Magpies. While Alan Shearer added further firepower that summer, Keegan’s shock resignation midway through the 1996/1997 campaign allied to the development of Fergie’s fledglings impacted upon a sustained challenge on the title. Under Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit, Newcastle descended into mediocrity. Despite a brief reprieve under Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle’s decline continued and hit its lowest ebb when they were relegated in 2009.

But it is Mike Ashley’s takeover of the club in 2007 that represents the nadir in Newcastle’s proud heritage.

When Ashley first invested in Newcastle, many believed it represented good business. Despite his London roots, the Geordies were content as Ashley, a self-made billionaire, paid off large sums of inherited debt, re-installed Kevin Keegan and engaged with the people in the manner of an everyday fan (however unruly). Keegan however, was not so content. The apparent meddling of Dennis Wise, the Director of Football, in the team’s affairs prompted another abrupt departure.

Within 18 months Ashley sought to offload the club amidst growing unrest in the stands, but with little interest in an unstable environment the club was taken off the market. Such uncertainty still permeates the boardroom.

Ashley has done little to endear himself to the city of Newcastle. In 2011 he sought to sell the naming rights of St. James’ Park, a local landmark. The Sports Direct Arena was deemed to be another avenue for sponsorship potential. While the commercial deal with Wonga saw the traditional name return at their behest, the same agreement drew much criticism from local MP’s who found that a partnership with a short-term loans company that preyed on the vulnerable was simply unacceptable. Many of those who suffered hailed from the community.

The owner’s tendency to ensure that his trusted associates were accommodated in his plans has also led to the doubting of his motives – Wise, and Joe Kinnear’s respective tenures in executive capacities being prime examples.

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Similarly, other decisions have drawn considerable ire – namely the removal of Chris Hughton despite promotion and the restoration of integrity to the club during his time. Alan Pardew, his replacement, set about recruiting a legion of Frenchmen and dealing with opponents on a first-hand basis. Steve McClaren’s appointment to the Board of Directors upon taking the managerial reins last summer beggared belief.

Furthermore, Ashley’s intentions for the football club have been questioned given his mostly underwhelming record in the transfer market. A club of Newcastle’s size should reasonably expect to attract high-profile targets. Keegan secured several, Graeme Souness rescued Michael Owen from Madrid while Bobby Robson signed one of England’s hottest properties in Jonathon Woodgate.

Upon his acquisition of the club though, Ashley signaled his intent by signing the troublesome Joey Barton and Alan Smith, an outcast at Manchester United. This trend would continue despite recouping enormous fees for the likes of Andy Carroll and Yohan Cabaye – one of the few success stories in the transfer market.

Arguably one of his better buys was that of Jonas Gutiérrez. Although he was not able to prevent Newcastle from slipping into the Championship, Gutiérrez played for the club as though he were one of the local lads. The identity of Newcastle should espouse that of their faithful following and Gutiérrez managed it better than the majority of those who have worn black and white in recent years.

Before joining, Gutiérrez saw that Newcastle were perennial underachievers. His compatriot Lionel Messi predicted that the Spiderman would bring Newcastle to the next level. Although such predictions were never realised, Newcastle admired his endeavours. Through his honesty, enthusiasm and hard-working mentality, it was clear that the Argentine wanted the same for the club as the 52,000 in the stands.

Having returned to the field at home to Manchester United in March last year following testicular cancer in 2013, the Argentine set about re-establishing himself in the first-team and activating an automatic contract extension. Such a clause required that Gutiérrez play 80 games between 2011 and 2015. But as Gutiérrez closed in on the number he mysteriously disappeared from John Carver’s plans, before returning to start every game once the target was out of reach to help with Newcastle’s fight for its own survival.

Newcastle United v West Ham United - Premier League

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND – MAY 24: Jonas Gutierrez of Newcastle United celebrates scoring his team’s second goal with his team mates during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Ham United at St James’ Park on May 24, 2015 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Following Sunderland’s victory over Norwich and their own demolition of Swansea on Saturday, Newcastle have been given another lifeline. They barely deserve it. Nevertheless, Newcastle should not be in such a perilous position to begin with. With fixtures against Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur all to come, the recent turn of events may have come too late.

Should they return to the Championship on this occasion, it is inevitable that Rafa Benítez will leave them there. Steven Taylor and Jack Colback will remain, but whether they can motivate an abject squad of overpaid misfits to lead them back to where they belong is another question entirely. With Mike Ashley set to remain in charge, the same question looms ever larger.

That Gutiérrez was perceived to be a liability following his recovery from illness encapsulates all that is wrong at the football club. It is missing a heart.

Following the Employment Tribunal’s determination that Gutiérrez had been discriminated against, the midfielder tweeted a stinging condemnation of Ashley’s handling of the club.

“I am a Geordie” Gutiérrez exclaimed.

Thanks Newcastle fans for your support. I love the city. I hope WE stay up. Come on the Toon. Once a Geordie always a Geordie… Ashley, you don’t understand Newcastle. You don’t understand the fans and the city. We deserved more. We are the Geordie nation.”

For too long Newcastle United has turned its back on those to whom it means most. Perhaps with Gutiérrez on board, they might not be staring relegation in the face.

 

Joleon Lescott: A True Villain

As featured on Pundit Arena on Saturday, April 16th 2016

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Today, Aston Villa were finally condemned to the Championship. It has seemed inevitable for some time now, but given that the club is one of England’s oldest and most successful, you would have thought that pride would have inspired more than the insipid opposition that they provided throughout the campaign.

However, whether it has been on or off the field, the playing staff of Aston Villa have continuously let down their faithful support. Club captain Gabriel Agbonlahor was admonished for enjoying himself in Dubai, while Joleon Lescott was berated for posting a photo of his car on social media in the immediate aftermath of their embarrassing 6-0 defeat to Liverpool in front of their own fans in February.

While footballers are allowed to enjoy a life beyond the football field, when two of your most experienced professionals are blatantly ignorant of their team’s plight and the dissatisfaction of fans that accompanies such a predicament, then their dedication to the cause has to be questioned.

Lescott has provided us with another clanger this afternoon, sparking harsh criticism from some of his predecessors. The former England centre-half told the BBC: “Now it’s confirmed maybe it’s a weight off the shoulders and we can give these fans what they deserve, some performances.”

 Arguably the weight to which Lescott refers was lifted weeks ago given that their uninterrupted stint in the Premier League has been effectively extinguished since the turn of the year. The least that their fans deserved was a reason to keep turning up at Villa Park – they have failed to provide one. Even today, in full knowledge that a loss to Manchester United would put the final nail in their coffin, the most they could muster was one measly attempt on target.

As they departed Old Trafford, the Aston Villa players and management applauded their travelling contingent. The applause was reciprocated, but it was a feeble acknowledgement compared to their appreciations of Paul McGrath, Dion Dublin, Ian Taylor and Gareth Southgate – players who led Aston Villa to the upper echelons of English football for several campaigns, a distant memory today.

They’ve Only Got One Shot…

As featured on Pundit Arena on Wednesday April 13th 2016.

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For the unacquainted, Leicester was once a military outpost for the Romans during their occupation of Britain until 410 AD. Thereafter little is known of the town’s history other than it being the final resting place of King Richard III. Now that a Roman has returned however, the largest settlement in the East Midlands is about to create its own modern folklore.

If you are to believe the local historians, Robin Hood was actually born in Leicestershire. Certainly it would make some sense if Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side were to rob the spoils from under the noses of the Premier League’s rich and famous.

Although it is now the stuff of fairytale in itself, Ranieri was a bemusing choice when he arrived at the King Power Stadium last year. Nigel Pearson had just guided the club to safety in miraculous circumstances and enjoyed an exalted status until his son’s libido intervened. Ranieri, who had previously been sacked by Greece in the aftermath of a home loss to the Faroe Islands, was quickly bombarded with the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

In defending their choice, Leicester City officials cited Ranieri’s pedigree and list of former employers. But despite arriving at Chelsea in 2000 having carved out a formidable reputation at Cagliari, Fiorentina and Valencia, Ranieri’s reputation suffered after a doomed stint under Roman Abramovich was followed by abrupt departures at Parma, Juventus, AS Roma, Inter Milan and Monaco. His failure to guide the Greek’s to Euro 2016 finally seemed to signal the end of a nomadic career.

When the tickets for Leicester City’s final home game of the season were released on Monday they sold out in less than 90 minutes. Touts have since sought over £8,000 for the Everton fixture. While the majority of season-ticket holders have been facilitated, the inevitable increase in demand has meant that many of those who have have been loyal to the club throughout their rise through the football league have been left disappointed. However, they remain adamant that they will not miss out next season…

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In 1995, Blackburn Rovers claimed the English title for the first time since 1914. Having been outside the top flight since 1966, the Lancashire club embarked on a meteoric journey from the depths of the Second Division in 1991 to the upper echelons of English football within three years. But despite guiding the club to such dizzy heights, Kenny Dalglish declined the opportunity to take his side into Europe in the following campaign. Ray Harford, his humble assistant, assumed the reins. In May 1999, Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Premier League.

Jack Walker, a local industrialist, is largely credited for the success of that Rovers’ side. His considerable investment convinced the likes of Alan Shearer, Tim Sherwood, Chris Sutton and Graeme le Saux to engage with the project. However, Rovers inability to maintain a credible challenge thereafter prompted several stars to look elsewhere.

Given that Leicester City’s squad has been collated at a cost of just £55m, the Srivaddhanaphraba family stand to make sizeable profit should they choose to cash in on their talent. Both Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté have drawn admiring glances from a host of top European clubs, while the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater would be welcome additions at most English sides. The true intentions of the Thai owners are as yet unknown.

It would be hard to see how Mahrez and Kanté wouldn’t be tempted to play in some of the biggest stadiums in the world, lining out alongside some of the greatest players to grace the game. A journey through Europe á la Harchester United might seem attractive, but they will also be realistic. Last year Real Madrid were prepared to offer £80m for Eden Hazard – they might yet get their man for a cut-price fee following the Belgian’s poor campaign.

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There is also the Ranieri question. For one, he is not a young man (in fact he is the tenth oldest manager in the history of the Premier League). Only he knows whether he has the energy to mount a challenge on both English and European fronts next year. Furthermore, given that he has never stayed with the same club beyond a third season, Ranieri is all too aware of the fluctuating nature of the game.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley all achieved an abundance of success with clubs that were natural members of the Round Table. They were annual contenders for domestic and continental honours. Claudio Ranieri however is on the cusp of success with a team that seemed destined to dine in the servant’s quarters. Having returned to England as a slighted mercenary, he will emerge from this campaign as a romantic hero – as if a rose tree sprouted out of a slag heap.

The authorities at Leicester City club presumably have a stern rule about keeping off the pitch, but the football folk of the East Midlands club will not be denied their hour of glory. Even if the club officials were to build a moat around the field, the delirious fans of the Foxes will walk on water.

You can bet that many of them will be calling to their bank before then.

 

Mahrez: £400k

Vardy: £1m

Kanté: £5.6m

Watching Leicester win the Premier League: Priceless

The Great Hope

As featured at the Gordon D’Arcy Tribute Lunch in support of the Clongowes Wood College Alberto Hurtado Bursary Programme at The Marker Hotel, Saturday April 9th 2016.

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At about four o’clock in Lansdowne Road on March 17th 1998, little troops of students swirled around like medieval monks who had received news of the second coming.

In fact it would be unfair to apportion all the excitement to the young boys; Ireland coach Warren Gatland similarly embraced the hysteria.

Clongowes had just defeated Terenure in the Senior Cup final and at full back was Gordon D’Arcy – the most talked about schoolboy in Irish rugby. Indeed such was D’Arcy’s dominance of the competition that in the aftermath of the semi-final against a much-fancied St. Mary’s College, The Irish Times reported that his performance made the fixture “seem like a personal benefit match.”

Beyond the expert analysis and opinion, it was clear for all to see that D’Arcy was primed for a future in the game. What a future that was.

When D’Arcy arrived at Clongowes in 1992, the Irish sporting landscape was somewhat different. While Jack Charlton’s footballers had failed to qualify for the European Championships, they remained proud ambassadors and comprised some of the best talent from the inaugural Premier League. By contrast, Irish rugby was doing little for the soul – Ireland conceded 116 points as they stormed to the Wooden Spoon in the Five Nations that year.

Ironically, the sport was enjoying an upturn in fortunes at Clane. Success in 1988 and 1991 ensured that the proliferation of replica football gear would not impact upon the rugby field. It was clear though that some remained to be converted as they dashed about the first year pitch like moths trapped under a lampshade. Not even the great Vinny Murray could have foreseen that this was the beginning of one of the great schoolboy teams – and that the little portly hooker was the great hope of the Irish game.

There was immense excitement amongst the rugby fraternity when D’Arcy first emerged on the scene. From the age of 15 he was a force of nature for Clongowes, producing explosive performances in purple and white of the kind never seen before. He played the game as though he had read every schoolboy story ever written and believed every word. A good many people duly proclaimed him to be the greatest exponent of the schools’ game. Understandably, with Irish rugby in the midst of a torrid decade, Warren Gatland was like an eager valentine. But for a time his admiration was unrequited and Mr. D’Arcy assumed the role of the aloof romantic hero.

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In a few short months following his Leaving Cert., D’Arcy was lining out for Leinster at Llanelli alongside wily amateurs that even the Internet would struggle to remember. It was not quite the Promised Land, but when he departed the scene some 257 games later having garnered more caps and medals than any other before him, the RDS represented the utopian home of European rugby. Thanks to success on the pitch and astute management off it, Leinster Rugby has flourished in the professional era – the fanbase has grown exponentially, so too the trophy cabinet and it is now the strongest rugby franchise in the Northern Hemisphere. But as the club embarked on this exciting adventure with a young D’Arcy in tow, it was evident that raw talent alone would not guarantee survival.

Much of D’Arcy’s early career was pockmarked by injury, disappointment and criticism. Although he made his international debut against Romania in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, Gatland turned to an array of other faces to address another faltering Six Nations campaign a short time later. Having come a long way since his parents, Peggy and John, left him in a Clongowes cubicle, D’Arcy faced an uncertain period once again. A few brief cameos in green aside, D’Arcy was left to fill the gaps created by the Test season. As he watched his peers pack their bags for the 2003 World Cup in Australia, his morale was at an all-time low. An injection of that potent drug called confidence was badly needed. Yet while he might have questioned his own international credentials, Gary Ella remained a fan. D’Arcy soon began to revel in the faith and freedom afforded to him by the Leinster coach and when he was entrusted with the midfield against Sale Sharks in the Heineken Cup the following January, he would never look back.

It had been a tumultuous six years but once again D’Arcy’s name was on the lips of every man, woman and child as Ireland claimed their first Triple Crown in 19 years in 2004. His international redemption was complete and his rampaging jaunts finally had the audience they deserved. Having advocated his cause over many Diving D’Arcy cocktails at Kiely’s, Clongowes men everywhere were finally vindicated as he scythed through defences at Paris, Twickenham and Lansdowne just as he had done against Blackrock College at Donnybrook. No longer did memories of his schoolboy heroics have to seem so distant.

Given that his debut came in the last century, it is no surprise that D’Arcy became Ireland’s longest serving international on his final outing in August 2015. On that day he shared the field with Jack Conan who was probably still in swaddling clothes in 1999. In the intervening 16 seasons, D’Arcy bellowed Ireland’s Call on 82 occasions and Ireland became a team that could compete with the best. He also provided the Irish people with some indelible memories: the brace against Scotland, the record-breaking partnership with Brian O’Driscoll and… well, the beard might be best forgotten…

Although the Grand Slam decider against Wales in 2009 will forever be etched in our minds, one of the special moments of that campaign came some weeks earlier. Complications with a broken arm precluded D’Arcy from playing for almost a year prior to the championship. So when he entered the fray against the French, Croke Park stood to attention. In unison everyone applauded a man that many thought would never wear the green of Ireland again. Inevitably, he capped his return in true D’Arcy style, spinning and twisting away from three tacklers to steer Ireland to victory at what was a crucial juncture of the game.

As D’Arcy emerged from the try-line, he was mobbed by his teammates. When the cameras caught a glimpse of him, the look of pure elation on his face told its own story. It also convinced us all that our fantasies can become a solid reality. Dreams of an Irish Grand Slam duly swept the country at a time of great need. D’Arcy disproved many doubters that day (something he would do throughout his career) and earned his place back in a team that was on the brink of glory. Had he not lined out at the Millennium Stadium he would have seemed like the good peasant who had planted and tended the vine but had not been around long enough to enjoy the vintage. But he did, and the windfall of revenue from the consequent celebrations undoubtedly helped to bridge the budget deficit.

As the first Clongownian to play for Ireland since Rory Moroney in 1985, D’Arcy paved the way for a new generation of Clongowes rugby talent. While the school became a regular fixture in the latter stages of the Senior Cup, several of those who featured proceeded on to establish reputable careers in their own right. In what was a proud moment for the school, D’Arcy was joined by three of them as Ireland put Samoa to the sword at the Aviva in 2013. Fittingly, D’Arcy, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden all played a significant role in Dave Kearney’s first try for his country in what Tony Ward claimed was a “a try that was made in Clane.”

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But D’Arcy’s influence has not just been felt on the field of play. When he raced through the dormitories practicing his sidestep upon the rattling of the keys in the Third Line, Roy Keane adorned the cubicles that were kitted out with bedclothes from Old Trafford. But as he was taking to the field for the British & Irish Lions, triumphing in Europe with Leinster and inspiring his country to Grand Slam’s, hundreds of young Clongownians went to their beds in their shoulder pads to dream of glory under posters of Ireland’s rugby stars.

Both on and off the field, D’Arcy represented Clongowes, his country and his family with distinction. He is one of Ireland’s greatest.The slalom breaks, the driving feet, the breakdown expertise, the low centre of gravity, the subtleties of his work – they all gave us myriad moments of delight and caused many an opponent to wonder if the laws of physics had been changed overnight.

Upon announcing his retirement, D’Arcy proclaimed that “it has been an honour and I have loved every minute”.

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Fleeting Rivalries

As featured in the Leinster Rugby v Edinburgh match programme Friday, April 15th.

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If ever there was anyone who bled black and white, John McHugh was probably that person. Hugely admired, the staff and students of Belvedere College were sorry to see him leave in 2010. However, despite the demands of his role as vice-captain in his final year, John didn’t accept that his contributions to the school were complete. He was a natural choice to assume the presidency of the Belvedere Junior Union in 2014, further preserving his ties with his alma mater.

As President, John worked tirelessly to support fellow Belvederians who had fallen upon hard times. Last year, John was instrumental in ensuring the success of the Panda Cup, a tag rugby tournament in aid of a friend who had broken his neck in a freak accident. He was also a point of contact for young past-pupils as they navigated the transition from the classroom to the lecture hall. But such was John’s character that his influence stretched far beyond the walls of the Great Denmark Street school.

In early April, the annual Panda Cup took place once again. While the Senior Cup sat proudly at a Belvedere Sports Grounds decorated in black and white, hundreds of friends and colleagues who had bled various colours throughout their school days, came together to remember and honour John who sadly passed away as he competed in the SSE Airticity Dublin half-marathon last September. It was a wet and miserable morning, yet hundreds of people heeded the advice of John’s dad Noel who told them that “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

While the cup season demonstrates the height of schoolboy rivalry, ultimately it is a fleeting emotion. As John found, those who challenge for academic and sporting honours from opposite sides of the fence soon find themselves sitting next to their old foes in universities and dressing rooms throughout the country. In fact, it has already happened.

“It was strange at first playing alongside guys you were so used to facing as an opponent,” says Caelan Doris who captained Ireland U18 in the recent Five-Nations Festival. “When we first came together on St. Patrick’s Day it was a bit bizarre because some of those involved had faced each other in cup finals just a few days previously. There were obviously some raw wounds but it was great to see everyone so happy to join forces.”

Coached by Noel McNamara and Alex Codling, the Irish contingent had to quickly adapt to a quasi-professional environment. “The training sessions were timed to the most minute detail and it was more player driven than I had ever experienced. We knew that we had the intensity, physicality and talent but it was important that everyone bought into the system and pulled together. We actually mixed really well as a group both on and off the field. There was a job to be done but that didn’t stop us from having fun in our downtime!”

On March 24th, Ireland opened their tournament against an imposing English side in Bristol. Although Ronan Kelleher of St. Michael’s College was amongst the scorers in a battling display, James Grayson, son of former England out-half Paul, had the final say and secured a 15-12 triumph for England.

Although disappointed, there were plenty of positives to be gleaned from the outing as the group built towards the Scotland game in Caerphilly, Wales. Amidst a raft of changes, Doris of Blackrock was in imperious form as he claimed a hat trick of tries, complimented by further scores from Kelleher (brother of Leinster winger Cian), Daniel Hurley (x2), Jonathon Stewart and the boot of James Hume. Ireland romped to a 43-0 victory.

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Given the school calendar, Ireland’s participation in the Festival was to conclude after their third game. However, finishing on positive note proved to be a much more difficult task than they had envisaged. Just three days after their impressive routing of Scotland, Ireland faced the Italians at the same venue. Following a slow start, not even tries from Doris (x2) and Kelleher could prevent the Italians from claiming a surprise scalp on a 21-17 scoreline.

Meanwhile, under the tutelage of Mark Butler and Colm Tucker, another assortment of the country’s best U18 players donned green in the Tri-Nations Festival that took place in Ashbourne RFC. Despite a 23-10 loss to the French (comprising players from regional academies) in poor conditions, the Irish regrouped to defeat England 19-17 on April 2nd with the talented Jack O’Sullivan of PBC Cork securing victory in the last play of the game.

An accomplished player in his own right, John McHugh had an ability to cover almost every position in the backline. He was equally adept at barking at his forwards or scything through defences and he did so for Belvedere at both Junior and Senior Cup level. He applied himself to every task with vigour as he would do in all aspects of his short life. Given his involvement, John was familiar with the competitive rivalry that exists on the schools’ scene. Indeed, he would have reveled in the outcome of this year’s final at the RDS. Yet nothing would have given him greater pride than seeing men and women of all sizes, age and ability, tuck a ball under their arm and run at the John McHugh Panda Cup.

 

 

Ireland U18 Five Nations Festival Squad

Ollie Brown (Harpenden RFC); Alexander Clarke (Ballymena Academy); Eoghan Clarke (CBC Monkstown); Ronan Coffey (Ardscoil Ris); Matthew Dalton (Belfast Royal Academy); Conor Dean (Blackrock College); Caelan Doris (Blackrock College); Richard Dunne (Blackrock College); David Hawkshaw (Belvedere College); James Hume (RBAI); Daniel Hurley (Crescent CC); Ronan Kelleher (St. Michael’s College); Sean Masterson (Portlaoise RFC); Tadgh McCarthy (Bantry RFC); John McCusker (Rainey Old Boys); Michael Milne (Roscrea); James Newey (Christ College Brecon); Tommy O’Brien (Blackrock College);
Hugh O’Sullivan (Belvedere College); Tom O’Toole (Campbell College); Callum Reid (RBAI)
David Robb (Galwegians); Charlie Ryan (Blackrock College); Jonathon Stewart (Wallace High School); Liam Turner (Blackrock College); Conor Wharton (Oaklands College)

 

Ireland Tri Nations Festival Squad

 Diarmuid Barron (Rockwell College); Aaron Browne (Roscrea); Evin Coyle (Gonzaga);
Alex Crocker (Henley College); Jack Daly (Castleisland); Sam Dardis (Terenure);
Jack Dunne (St.Michael’s College); Cathal Duff (Clongowes Wood College); Bruce Houston (Ballymena Academy) David McCarthy (Skibbereen RFC); Stephen McLaughlin (Blackrock College); Paul Mullan (Armagh RFC); Andrew Murphy (Blackrock College); Fergus O’Brien (Whitgift School); Thomas O’Callaghan (CBC Monkstown); JJ O’Dea (Navan); Rhys O’Donnell (RBAI); Jack O’Sullivan (PBC ); Conor Philips (Crescent College); Cory Reid (Buccaneers & Marist College); Michael Silvester (Clongowes Wood College); Peter Sylvester (PBC)