Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Rock pack can prove too much for Roscrea


IMMEDIATELY after Roscrea had come so close to beating Terenure in last year's Coca-Cola Leinster Schools' Senior semi-final at Donnybrook, word went around that most of the pack who had performed so heroically that day would be eligible next year.

IMMEDIATELY after Roscrea had come so close to beating Terenure in last year's Coca-Cola Leinster Schools' Senior semi-final at Donnybrook, word went around that most of the pack who had performed so heroically that day would be eligible next year.

Their time has now come and true to form under coach Kevin West, the powerful Roscrea forward unit has more than lived up to advance billing. Bear in mind that only current Irish international No 8 and last year's skipper, Dermot O'Loughlin, is no longer underage and that second row Dan Cavanagh, who substituted so successfully for David Farrell in the semi final against Newbridge, was also in that squad.

With Pat McCarthy moved to No 8 instead of O'Loughlin and with Cavanagh now firmly ensconced in the second row it is almost the identical unit to a year ago. A huge advantage by any stretch of the imagination. In addition, both scrum halves, Shane Connellan and Gordon Ross, plus Irish schools' centre Gavin Duffy, were key players in that squad.

With such a nucleus in place, Roscrea were always going to be serious contenders for this year's senior schools' title.

And so it has come to pass that the Cistercian school, located just 300 yards inside the Leinster border, proudly takes the field against Blackrock today in only the third senior final in its history and its first since 1941.

When the teams met in a friendly at Williamstown early in the season Blackrock romped home 41-12. But you can take that result as meaningless in the context of today. Of course, 'Rock are firm favourites. One defeat all season (to St Mary's) justifies their tag as worthy pre-competition hot shots. That tag, and the weight of the finest tradition in the schools game in this country on their young shoulders, has not phased them one bit thus far.

What is more, they have come through to today's decider the hard way. The lop-sided nature of the draw has seen them overcome sister colleges St Michael's and St Mary's plus champions Clongowes.

From loose head Peter Dowling to Irish schools' full back Paul Drew, there is not a readily identifiable weakness in the team. New Coach Alan MacGinty has them playing a nicely balanced all embracing game. That said, just like Roscrea their real strength is up front.

As Roscrea mentor West acknowledges: ``While Newbridge were physically the biggest pack we have come up against, 'Rock will be the most powerful because they are very well organised too.''

The respect is mutual, with MacGinty pointing to ``a well drilled, well organised and well coached Roscrea side.'' So what can we expect?

For starters, every neutral in the ground and much further afield than Dublin 4 will be rooting for underdogs Roscrea. But even though it is a novel pairing 'Rock in search of a 63rd title as opposed to Roscrea's pursuit of a first this is no David and Goliath affair. This an extremely talented Roscrea side, and while I wasn't around for their great days in 1910 or 1941, I would suggest it is by some way the best to ever represent the school.

Anyone coming along to witness a mere spirited performance in a romantic final could be in for a pleasant surprise. John Phelan's side has what it takes to go the whole way.

They have yet to perform to their maximum potential in this competition with their semi-final performance their least impressive so far. But they will be much the better for that Lansdowne experience and will come out with all guns blazing today.

In Shane Connellan at scrum-half and Gavin Duffy in midfield they possess two players to test the Blackrock defence close in and out wide. Further back, in the last line of defence, they have the potential match winner in the ice cool Redmond Barry.

A SIMILAR statement can be made of Drew at the back for 'Rock. His place kicking and counter attacking will determine much this afternoon. While in Conor Buckley and Alex Cahill he has power and pace alongside.

Furthermore, if John Walsh at scrum-half can exert the same influence as against St Mary's in the semi and link the 'Rock game together then another title surely looms.

But, in the final analysis it comes down to two things: How Roscrea utilise and protect their own possession (which they did particularly poorly in the first half against Newbridge) and, secondly, how well they can prevent the 'Rock pack but particularly their man mountain second rows, John MacGovern and Robert Lacey from wreaking havoc in the loose.

Perhaps the Roscrea coach sums it up best of all when he says: ``While winning is our primary objective, I know our best performance is yet to come. Hopefully they will do themselves justice and who knows what might follow.''

Certainly few can quibble with the assessment of 'Rock as hot favourites, but if Roscrea can settle down quickly; if Aaron Spring and Cavanagh can negate McGovern and Lacey at the line out; if they can prevent the slow 'Rock rumbling maul, and if Barry can continue to kick as he has in the competition so far then don't rule out the most romantic ending to the senior competition imaginable.

In order for that to happen they must produce their most complete, error free performance of the season with protection of possession the key.

And Rock? As former international Brendan Mullin said: ``How any 'Rock team copes with the weight of tradition determines so much. There may be sixty-two cups already locked away, but remember, this would be the first for this 'Rock team.''

It's a point well made. So while common sense dictates Blackrock and inspirational skipper Tom O'Donohoe should be celebrating come 5.0 this afternoon, don't rule out the impossible.

Yet, I believe 'Rock carry too much firepower up front to lose.

Today's final will see match officials using modern technology to communicate wired up touch flags for the first time ever at a schools' game in this country, while those unable to attend will be able to see extended highlights on TnaG at 7.0 this evening.

In addition, highlights from today's Munster Schools Senior final between St Munchin's and holders CBC, Cork at Thomond Park will be broadcast on TnaG on Sunday next at 6.50.

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