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