Small school represents all four corners of the country
Roscrea college continue to succeed despite challenge of falling player pool
Cistercian College Roscrea are used to being the underdogs in the Leinster Senior Cup. A school of just under 200 students, they have managed to remain highly competitive among schools who boast far greater playing numbers.
Roscrea make no secret of the fact that a large percentage of their students come from all corners of the country and not just the bordering country towns. After all, they are one of the few boys' boarding schools left in Ireland, which sees students enrolling from far and wide.
Although they bear the name of a Tipperary town, the school itself is based a few miles inside the Offaly border and according to the head games master Brendan McKeogh, they are proud to be a Leinster school.
"Geographically, we're inside the Offaly border and while our name might be Roscrea, we are a Leinster school and we are proud of that. We're in no doubt whatsoever of our identity," he said.
"Even though we do pick players from around the country, as far as we are concerned, our goal has always been and will continue to be to try and win a Leinster Senior Cup."
Like a lot of private schools in Ireland, Roscrea's numbers are down compared to pre-recessionary times. And while most of the bigger rugby playing schools can still cope, McKeogh admits that the decrease in their player pool has hurt them more than others.
"There is somewhere in the region of 160 students currently playing rugby in the school. We have 90 pupils in senior house and we run three senior teams from that.
"We try and encourage all of our senior students to play rugby."
While rugby is the dominant sport in the school, hurling, golf and athletics are also prominent, meaning that the rugby players are forced to find a balance with other sports as well as their education.
In a competition that tends to be dominated by the same few schools, Roscrea have managed to reach two Senior Cup finals in the last 15 years – an achievement which should not be understated given their resources.
Connacht's Gavin Duffy was a key part of their side who just came up short against Blackrock in 1999 but McKeogh maintains that Roscrea continues to be an attractive school for students who want a good education as well as an opportunity at professional rugby.
"We're fortunate that the school has a good reputation for rugby and people want to come here and play for us. We've been quite successful in recent years and are still playing at the top tier.
"There are a lot of good people working hard towards the same goal. The players commit to doing six or seven sessions a week. That includes training, video analysis and gym sessions.
"The coaches that work with the school certainly don't get paid, but rather come in purely for the love of the game. They're ambitious and so is the school's management. Everyone involved wants to see rugby doing well within the school."
One of the main reasons that Roscrea have managed to stay so competitive in the Senior Cup in recent times is the fact that head coach John Lillis is in his fourth year in charge of the team.
As well as that, the younger teams are beginning to be introduced to similar training methods, which, in McKeogh's eyes, will allow Roscrea to continue to punch about their weight.
"Having a settled coaching team means that they know how a school works as well. It's not just a case of coming in as individuals. You have to come in and work around the academic requirements of the school and still find time to train.
"All of our younger teams are also being developed very well at the moment."
Looking ahead to this year's Cup, Roscrea have been drawn against Newbridge College – a school who beat them in the League final just last month.
Despite the 43-10 score line, Lillis is keen to point out that his side was far from full strength. He is eager for his young players to erase that heavy defeat from their minds before the upcoming Cup game.
"There's always the question with young lads as to how will take a defeat like that," he said. "It was a fairly substantial loss in truth. But to counteract that, we were missing four of our first team.
"We've got such a small squad that we've suffered with injuries this year. The depth just isn't there. At the moment we have five of our first team out, but we're hoping to have three of them back for the Cup."
Like McKeogh, Lillis is only too aware of the school's over-achievements in recent years, but given that there are six of last year's team involved again this year, they are hopeful of springing another in a long list of cup upsets.
The return of out-half Tim Foley is massive boost for Roscrea. Lillis insists that had Foley not been unfortunate enough to miss the semi-final of last year's competition through illness, his side would have been in with a good shout of claiming their first ever Senior Cup title.
"Last year's pack were one of the biggest in school's rugby and with the likes of Tim outside them, we were shaping up well and could really have gone all the way to be honest," he said.
"This year's group wouldn't be as physically strong, but they are more mobile."
They might be one of the smallest rugby playing schools in the province, but Roscrea boast one of the highest representations at international schoolboy level.
A decrease in playing numbers will not deter their attitude when coming up against the so called 'bigger' schools.
Recent graduates from the school Ciaran Gaffney, Rory Moloney and Sean O'Brien have all been involved with the Connacht U-20s, while Cormac Brennan is playing with Leinster U-20s and Oisin Heffernan has secured a sub-academy contract with the same province.
"It's good for Irish rugby to have as many schools as possible producing these kind of players. The more the better," said McKeogh.
It's difficult to disagree with that notion.