A new era in the celebrated history of rugby at Sligo Grammar School begins on Saturday next with the re-opening of its ehanced pitch.
To mark the occasion, the School's senior team will play Blackrock College U.18s with a 12 noon kick off.
Sligo Grammar School is synonymous with rugby.
For 100 years the game has been played in the school. Many students remember fondly their years playing for the school at both junior and senior level.
When Lionel Gallagher arrived in the school in the late 1950s he set about developing the game.
In the early years there was no pitch and the teams travelled over to play in Cartron. Hamilton Park, the home ground of Sligo RFC, was not in use at the time, which resulted in Sligo RFC also using the Grammar's pitch.
The Grammar School won the Senior Cup in 1960/61 and it will long be remembered as the final played in the Showgrounds, the home of Sligo Rovers.
Lionel felt it was unfair that all finals were played in Galway and wrote a letter of protest to the Connacht Branch and the IRFU. Unfortunately there was a by-law in place whereby the final had to be played in a venue with a gate for taking tickets.
Hamilton Park did not exist and Rule 42 of the GAA meant Markievicz Park was unavailable. Therefore there was no available ground in Sligo. In a masterstroke Lionel hired out the Showgrounds for the match.
Another problem was the lack of rugby posts at the Showgrounds. To address this Lionel organised his players to dig up the posts at their pitch in Cartron and carry them through Sligo town to the showgrounds.
In what is believed to be the only rugby match played in The Showgrounds, Sligo Grammar School went on to win the Cup. However, the Connacht Branch passed a by-law that all finals must be played in the Sports Ground in Galway City. It made no difference to Sligo Grammar School who won the Cup for the following two years.
Lionel was joined by Oliver Morris who contributed to the game in the school especially through the 1990s. Under his direction the School won the Cup in 1999 and 2000 and again in 2003, when he was joined by James Gavin. During his years in charge Wesley Maxwell and Jason East were capped for Ireland at U18 level.
In 2010 Sligo Grammar School won the Connacht Cup with what is regarded as one of the best School teams to have ever played in Connacht. The team was taken by Simon Galvan, Paddy Pearson, Jimmy Staunton, James Gavin and Tommy Cradock. In that year, they defeated Crescent College, Limerick, Clongowes Wood, Kildare and Campbell College, Belfast. They played 16 games that season and won all of them. Four of the players were capped for Ireland and 10 for Connacht.
Rugby has changed a lot since turning professional and Sligo Grammar School has embraced this.
Since Tommy Cradock joined the staff in 2007 a greater emphasis is put on conditioning and it is an integral part of any Cup preparation for the senior team. Teams train up to 4 times a week with a special skills session taken by the Connacht Branch on the new fully floodlit Astro pitch.
Since 2008, the school has had 5 players capped for Ireland at Schoolboy level, Aaron Spring, Danny Qualter, Thomas Ferrari, Gary McConnell and Shane Boyle. This year Matthew Cosgrove has made the U18 Squad. This is a remarkable achievement considering the size of the school.
The School has produced more international players than any other school in the province.
In fact in the last 5 years only 3 players from other Connacht schools were capped at U18 Schoolboy level.
Rugby gives students an opportunity to join some of the provincial academies after finishing school. Many of the students also enter the University of Limerick Academy after doing their Leaving Certificate. In 20013 two former pupils were offered full professional contracts, Cathal Sheridan with Munster and Danny Qualter with Connacht.
This season Matthew Cosgrove, Joe Bennet, Joe Conway and Ryan Feehily have represented Connacht at U18 level. Paul Kilcoyne, TJ Ford, Peter Oloyede, Robert Henry and Dairog Smith represented Connacht U17 level.
Matthew Cosgrove was also captain of the Connacht side and was selected onto the Irish U18 Squad.
Saturday next begins a new era in rugby at Sligo Grammar School.