Based on the Clyde Road in Ballsbridge, one might have assumed that St. Conleth’s College would be more accustomed to the wide expanses at Donnybrook Stadium. But while noise from the revamped ground echoes throughout Dublin 4 at the turn of the year, the boys at St. Conleth’s are generally engrossed in their schoolbooks – or so they lead their teachers to believe.
As the daydreams contend with algebraic equations, it is easy for them to envisage greater glories in the rugby playground that lies outside the window – the sunlight reflecting from the Aviva Stadium can often prove too hard to ignore. When the bell finally tolls they first make their way past the Headmaster’s office, where Kevin Kelleher, the former Test referee who presides over the school, sits. Many will then pass by Donnybrook or the RDS or share the bus with boys from St. Michael’s College who are keen to discuss their next onslaught on the Senior Cup.
However, now it is the boys from St. Conleth’s that are waxing lyrical about their own ambitions.
Longtime stalwarts of Section A and the McMullen Cup, St. Conleth’s have always turned heads for their exemplary commitment and stylish play but their aspirations have often been checked by their playing resources: the senior school is made up of approximately 220 students, 25 of whom are girls (the school will become fully co-educational this year). With no playing grounds to call their own, the school benefits from the kindness of those at Wanderers RFC and Old Belvedere RFC where they train and play throughout the season.
With limited success at senior level in recent times, expectations had never seemed so great at the outset of a campaign. Led by Leinster Clubs’ player Kevin Dolan at No.8, the core of this side had plenty experience of senior rugby to call upon, while many were part of the team that won the Junior Shield in 2013. Under the stewardship of Gavin Maguire, a rugby infrastructure has been developed at St. Conleth’s that has seen it to rise above any perceived practical and logistical difficulties to become a recognised force in Leinster rugby circles.
While Maguire (a former pupil) and Michael Hassett sought to temper any pretensions, comfortable victories in pre-season did little to dispel any positivity – it was only when the draw for the Vinnie Murray Cup was made known that morale in the camp began to waver. Although Castleknock College has not scaled the heights of their rugby heritage in recent times, they remain a formidable force on the schools’ scene and regularly contest the opening rounds of the Senior Cup. However, St. Conleth’s dogged determination and team spirit saw them take a foothold in the game. Rugby royalty, however, does not just roll over, and Castleknock clawed their way back, scoring an injury-time try to break Conlethian hearts (27-25). Some saw that their greatest victory of the year, ironically, came in that loss. But while they had taken a formidable foe (and Vinnie Murray Cup finalists) to the brink, they would not rue the missed opportunity, instead they resolved to gird their loins and return to the paddock. Three titles remained up for grabs.
In dispatching Maynooth in the McMullen Cup semi-final (44- 8), St. Conleth’s returned to winning ways with aplomb. The following victory, over High School, 27-3, in the Vinnie Murray Plate semi-final, was a less attractive affair but St. Conleth’s showed that they could also persevere in dire conditions. The Plate and League Final against Templeogue College was more like a tank battle than a cavalry charge, and the echoes of the ferocious hits laid and absorbed by both sides are still reverberating down the backstreets and alleyways of Donnybrook. St. Conleth’s prevailed 12-0.
Yet it was the victory over St. Mary’s CBS, Enniscorthy in the McMullen Cup Final (41-0) that will be savoured by the St. Conleth’s community for many years to come. Not since 1986 had a captain of a St. Conleth’s SCT raised the McMullen Cup aloft. Kevin Dolan made the most of the occasion, with impeccable sportsmanship and manners, repeatedly and flawlessly leading his team like a mobile colossus up and down the pitch, but straying several yards offside in the waning moments to help a fallen opponent, overcome by the enormity of his defeat.
The ‘treble’ was St. Conleth’s and a magical season had come to a memorable end, one that captured the imagination of all those who appreciate an amateur sport being played the right way, both on and off the pitch.
With thanks to Charles Latvis.