I am someone who did not actually get the opportunity to partake in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup as a player. Despite this, I still firmly believe that school’s rugby is the purest form of the game as we know it in Ireland. The passion, the pageantry and the prize make for rugby matches that rarely disappoint; even from a neutral point of view.
In most cases, every cup game could be the last in school colours. In many ways, an entire lifetime of rugby is put into one, breathtaking moment. While the straight-knockout format of the cup is brutal, it brings out the best in great teams. With the first round of the Senior and Junior Cups completed, and the second round of the Senior Cup (Quarter-Finals) underway it is an ideal point at which to dip your foot into the water. All of the matches in the senior cup from this stage onwards will be shown on FreeSports – a free to air channel with all the mainstream providers.
While watching the matches on the television is certainly convenient, and could provide better clarity of viewing; the essence of school’s rugby is hearing the roar of a packed Energia Park (formerly Donnybrook Stadium) and hearing the roar of the crowd as the first kick-off is launched into the bracing spring air. While Energia Park has a capacity of 6,000 spectators, on a senior cup semi-final, or indeed junior cup final day it can seem like many more. The atmosphere at school’s rugby games rivals the Aviva Stadium on a good day. To the die-hard fans and the “old-boys,” the mere mention of the type of en masse walk-out seen during the England match would constitute blasphemy.
The fact that there are not unlimited resources; and only three school year groups to choose from means that there are inevitably weaknesses in all teams in the competition. Rather than take away from the play this adds to the excitement. Both defences invariably have weak spots; and this can lead to some excellent, open rugby. While we wouldn’t want to see obvious weak spots in international defences, it really provides a platform where good playmakers can showcase shrewd decision-making skills. The upgraded surface at Energia Park definitely deserves some credit for the more expansive approach teams have taken since 2015. Last year’s final alone saw a nine-try spread.
From a neutral perspective, the ticket prices are a bargain. Not only is the quality of play excellent; but the chances are in a senior cup final or semi-final you’re looking at at least four future professional rugby players. In the 2013 final between St. Michael’s College and Blackrock College holds the record of most future professional players in one match so far with 6 between the two teams. 2013’s final may never be surpassed in terms of numbers, but the future still looks bright ahead. The two captains of last year’s finalists made up the centre pairing in the Irish U20’s game against at Irish Independent Park on Friday 1st. The pair; in particular Turner did some serious damage; finding holes in a big English defence. Schools’ rivalry isn’t as bad as it seems then?
Rugby as an amateur sport is brilliant in that the underdog always has a fighting chance. Last year’s Senior Cup quarter-finals saw St. Mary’s completed a stunning victory over the physically supreme Roscrea pack; two of which also played in the Ireland v England U20s game. However, the most extreme example of this in recent years was Belevedere’s great escape against St. Michael’s Galactica in last year’s semi-finals. A Belvedere team missing their star-man Hawkshaw through injury managed to overcome arguably one of the most impressive sides in the competition’s history. While obviously disappointing to expectant Ailesbury Road students, the grit, determination and sheer luck shown by Belvedere exemplify the competition’s appeal to the neutral.
It would be a great oversight on the part of any journalist or rugby fan for that matter not to give a quick preview of what’s to come in the competition. By the time this goes to print the St. Michaels v Blackrock College tie will have been decided. The sentiment among pundits as things stand is that the winner of this match will likely go on to win the competition outright. Both sides will supply an excellent spread of talent. Particular attention should be paid to the Michael’s halfbacks; whether Cosgrave will remain outside Gilsenan or return to Fullback for the quarter final clash is uncertain. Blackrock will look to set up their attack through Gavin Jones and Ed Brennan; playing at outside centre and number eight respectively. One feels Rock will be a little more prepared for this game following a tough first round tie against an exceptional Pres Bray side. A mention should also be given to Jack Connolly of Gonzaga who came clutch with the boot against Castleknock in the first round. He will be instrumental in his team’s clash against Terenure. Winger Matthew Grogan of Belvedere promises to be electric in his school’s fixture against Newbridge. Finally, a special mention must be given to CBC Monkstown’s Captain James Reynolds. After setting the Vinnie Murray Cup alight he continues to show serious promise. Reynolds and his team breezed by CUS in the first round – and certainly have a chance, despite their opposition being an in-form Clongowes.
All fixtures and results are available on the Leinster Rugby Website.
By Matthew Dillon – Sports CoEditor