Club Focus: A growing rugby force has taken off in Sligo
No longer happy to play second fiddle, Summerhill College is churning out talented players, writes Daragh Small
Summerhill College will enter next week's Connacht Schools Senior Cup final as underdogs, mainly because they haven't won a single title at that level in their history, but that statistic doesn't tell the full story about this 'sleeping giant' from Sligo.
Head coach Ross O'Boyle is the 30-year-old mastermind behind this year's success, and if they go on to lift the trophy it would be the ultimate irony to have a former Sligo Grammar student at the helm - Grammar being their greatest foe.
O'Boyle is from the city, and he is steeped in rugby there, where he plays with both the Sligo RFC senior and development sides. And before he moves on to become director of rugby in the school next season, he hopes to have helped Summerhill to their first ever senior cup victory next Wednesday.
"We are playing the Jes in the final. This is only our second ever final, and our second in three years. We lost by a point to Garbally in the final two years ago - they scored late on to deny us that time. But we beat them by a point in the semi-final this year," says O'Boyle.
"The Jes are reigning champions and there is a good few of them back again this time around. They will be big favourites, they won the league comfortably this year. But we are happy being underdogs."
That final-four victory over the competition's most decorated side, Garbally College, was a massive step in the right direction for Summerhill.
Atmosphere They had lost 19-18 against the same opposition in the 2015 final, and had to come from behind to secure a 10-9 win on their home turf.
"That was our first game in Summerhill this year and it was a great atmosphere. The pitch was just about playable, and it was a big team effort to get it ready for the match," says O'Boyle.
"But the teachers are all buying into it in the school now. The principal is loving it too. He loved that semi-final the other day and having the whole school out.
"That was the only time this year that the whole school went out to watch a match and everyone is backing us now."
The College of the Immaculate Conception, Summerhill, was founded in 1857. Traditionally, GAA and football dominated the sporting landscape within the school, but over the last ten years the rugby team has started to outperform its competition.
Sligo RFC has played a huge role in implementing change within the school, and all of the current coaches play with the Sligo senior side in the Ulster Bank League Division 2C, where they are on the cusp of promotion.
But rugby began in the school in the late 1980s when development officers Pat Curran and Roy Cooper held training sessions, along with interested teachers Mannix O'Brien and Phelim O'Doherty, for a small group of students.
It was a huge leap into the unknown for the school but things gradually began to pick up pace, and Pat Corcoran was another leading light in fostering the growth of the rugby community in the school.
Adrian Barrett moved to Summerhill in 2001 and that was the dawn of a new era. It wasn't long until future Cork Con captain Niall Kenneally was knocking around, and he was followed by Ireland U-20 internationals Conan O'Donnell, Stephen Kerins and Cillian Gallagher - the latter captaining Ireland in the U-20 Six Nations this year.
"Rugby has just got a lot more of a profile now. Summerhill has been a sleeping giant when you look at how we do with the other sports in the school," adds O'Boyle.
"We have about 900-1,000 students in the school. There has been a lot of work put in. Ross Mannion and Gavin Foley and some of the senior coaches have been around for a long time.
"Summerhill is not rich in trophies, but it's rich in producing talent. We have had some phenomenal rugby players coming out of Summerhill to go on and play for Ireland.
"We have a Sligo man captaining the Ireland U-20s there, Cillian Gallagher - he went to Summerhill. Conan O'Donnell and Stephen Kerins are both in the Connacht squad and they went to Summerhill. We are starting to produce guys who are going from Summerhill straight to Connacht. This school has produced some fantastic talent and it is punching well above its weight in that regard."
Summerhill had their first major success when they beat Marist College to claim the Connacht junior development cup in 2002. And in '05 and '09 they lost two Connacht Schools Junior Cup finals by one score.
But the real breakthrough came two years ago when Summerhill beat Sligo Grammar in the Connacht Schools Senior Cup for the first time on their way to the final. And despite losing the decider, they learned a lot in defeat, and they are back seeking silverware in 2017.
They boast an experienced coaching team, with O'Boyle ably assisted by Simon Coulter, Mark Rooney, Conor Kerins and Garry Hehir.
Summerhill face a Coláiste Iognáid team who have won the senior cup 13 times in their history. They beat Sligo Grammar 29-7 in their semi-final and will be difficult to stop, but O'Boyle remains confident in his side.
"We actually lost every single game in the league this season because we were missing a lot of key players and we can't afford that. We have a really good starting 15, but after our best 16 or 17 players, there isn't that much squad depth," he says.
"But we stayed working hard on our patterns and game-plan and when the lads came back in, they had the quality and our performances got better and better all the time.
"It's a real one-team effort at the moment here at the school right now.
"Everyone is getting involved and there is a real good culture and attitude. Everyone wants to do well and we are pushing each other on to get some silverware."
Head coach: Ross O'Boyle