Thursday 20 July 2017

Rock of Ages

Ruaidhri O'Connor.

After 150 years which has produced a Taoiseach and President of the future, rugby still rules supreme

It's an institution that has produced a Taoiseach and President, Archbishops, legal minds, ministers, actors and musicians of note but despite it's many successes Blackrock College enters it's 151st year synonymous -- first and foremost -- with rugby.

In other realms the school produced last year's Tour de France participant Nicolas Roche and five of the Kilmacud Crokes team who won last year's All Ireland Club title in Gaelic football.

But having won more than six times the amount of Leinster Schools Senior Cups than it's nearest rivals, the Williamstown school is steeped in the competition.

They are celebrating their sesquicentennial -- that's 150th to you and I -- anniversary this year, and as the first ever champions and reigning holders of the competition they'll be looking to mark the event with a 67th win.

The kingpins' influence extends beyond the underage realms as it has helped as much as anything to fuel the rugby boom of the last ten years.

In that time the school won three titles, but it was their 1990s production line that produced -- amongst others -- the man recently voted by Rugby World magazine, the finest player of the decade.

Brian O'Driscoll was an unused substitute on the 1996 'Dream Team' that swept all before them and included the men who later this month will lead Leinster and London Irish at Twickenham in the crucial Heineken Cup clash -- Leo Cullen and Bob Casey.

Others, such as Ciaran Scally who played for Ireland, and Leinster cap Barry Gibney may have achieved more had it not been for injuries curtailing their promising careers.

The flow has kept on coming with the youngest member of the team that won in Cardiff last March was Luke Fitzgerald, a winner of two Cups in 2004 and 2006.

And the future looks like having a sky blue and white tinge to it when one reviews the Leinster Academy with the likes of Paul Ryan -- Fitzgerald's skipper in 2006, Brendan Macken and Andrew Conway knocking on the door at provincial level despite their tender ages.

So what is it that has made this school so good at what it does for such a consistent period?

A Senior Cup winner in 1995 and 1996, then hooker and current Peter Smyth is in as good a position as any to give his views.

"I would compare Blackrock to the New Zealand All Blacks or Kilkenny hurling," he says.

"The reason why we are what we are is because it means so much to everyone from the groundsman to the principal, from the coach to the players and the fans it's just the team is everything to the school.

"When people ask about other teams, for example -- why are Kilkenny so good? It's because everyone cares about it so much.

"As soon as you go into Willow you're indoctrinated into the Blackrock ethos and it's rugby. The funny thing about the school is that it's not just the JCT or SCT -- it's the whole way down.

"There's an interest in all the teams and you could have guys who start in the fourths or fifths who end up as Senior Cup players. It's quite egalitarian the way it works, and in the school, as well as the academic and other sides, is synonymous with rugby.

"If you say Blackrock to people in the British Isles they'll say 'rugby'. There's a huge interest around Cup time to see how the Senior and Junior teams are getting on."

Smyth has gone down in history as part of arguably the school's greatest ever side, vice captain to Gibney in '96, but he says that luck has as much to do with that success with anything.

"A lot of guys have gone on to big things but people call us the 'Dream Team' -- we were nearly put out in the second round by St. Michael's in '96, and in '95 we had a really tight final against Clongowes winning 8-3 on a day that saw the four seasons in Lansdowne Road.

"These things kind of turn on fine things. We wouldn't be known as the 'Dream Team' if we'd lost either of those games. That's the Cup, any team who wins a knock out competition needs a bit of luck on the way."

It's an exclusive club that Smyth is a part of. In the early 1990s future internationals Shane Byrne and Alan McGowan spearheaded the charge, before them in the 1980s Alain Rolland, Brendan Mullen and Neil Francis blazed a trail.

Future Lions and Ireland fullback Hugo MacNeill led the side to back-to-back titles in the 1970s, while in the sixties, 61 times capped Fergus Slattery missed out on a medal in the same decade former minister for finance Ruairi Quinn claimed the Cup.

The list continues back the decades and with an average record of six titles every decade it's not surprising.

This season's squad face an uphill battle to add to the incredible 66 trophies, with an unfavourable draw and the entire starting XV from last year's team now departed.

For Smyth though, while winning the Cup is a fond memory, it's the friendships that he built that have lasted.

"The tighthead on my team Stephen Tanner got married over Christmas and his groomsmen were Bob Casey and Leo Cullen who were on that team.

"It's a great achievement to win it at the time, but the great thing about it is coming back in eight, ten or 14 years as it is in our case and you're still teammates who have kept the friendship up and you've a common bond.

"Look at Bob and Leo, captains of London Irish and Leinster, but they'll always be Stephen and I's teammates. It's the life after that's the important thing."

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