Garbally College: Team effort carves path back to top in province
Strong community and club involvement means Garbally College has rediscovered a winning mentality, writes Daragh Small
Coláiste Iognáid were in search of their third Connacht Schools Senior Rugby Cup in a row at the Sportsground on March 20, but, like they have often done in the history of the competition, Garbally College took the honours instead with a 45-26 win.
It was the complete team performance from a school who claimed the Connacht Junior Cup with victory over the Jes in 2017. And the remnants of that junior-winning side could be seen dotted throughout this year's senior starting 15. Ten of those players will be back in the next campaign.
It's a fruitful time for Garbally College but the East Galway school have always known success in cup rugby. The Ballinasloe dynasty top the ranks in the junior and senior cup rolls of honour.
It's now 46 titles at senior level, while they have 42 at junior. But despite the fantastic depth of the talent, especially in the current senior crop, school principal Stephen Reilly has urged caution.
The Louth native watched his son and scrum-half, Colm, score the second of Garbally's seven tries against Coláiste Iognáid in the senior cup final.
Colm Reilly plays for the Ireland U-19s while his father used to play for Ardee RFC, Ballinasloe and Buccaneers.
"In my view it was a team performance. Your backs are only as good as the ball they are getting from the forwards. It was just a cohesive team performance overall," said Stephen Reilly.
"Ten of the starting team will be back and then you add in Jack Noone, Jack Dempsey and Fergus Finneran. The three forwards that were injured, they would have been considered for selection on the day. We have a strong selection for next year but other teams will be too.
"We have a lot of players coming through. But then again Marist will be strong again next year, Sligo Grammar, the Jes again. They are all very competitive.
"Marist have won a lot of junior finals recently. They are going to be very strong next year. Sligo Grammar and Summerhill in Sligo, there is a lot of growth there. The Jes are going to be very strong again.
"The Bish had a very good junior cup team this year which is very good to see. You would like to see that develop. You need more competition for schools rugby in Connacht for the game to advance.
"And there was a cracking final in the development cup on the same day as we were there, when Presentation College Headford won.
"That all helps the more schools that are involved, the more competition you are going to have, the better quality."
In 2008, Garbally College closed its doors to boarders after nearly 85 years in existence. They were always a huge aid to the magnificent success in cup rugby. Players like Johnny O'Connor and Tiernan O'Halloran were some of the recent rugby exports from the school.
It was only natural that there would be a lull in the arrival of silverware to the school after such a huge break in tradition, but after seven consecutive seasons of near misses and back-to-back losses in the final, they got back to the top of the province with victory in the 2015 final.
But prior to that change Garbally had a fine heritage of producing Ireland internationals and top-class rugby players for the province too. Ciarán Fitzgerald, Ray McLoughlin and Noel Mannion all came through the ranks. The latter's son, Stephen Mannion, scored 18 points against Coláiste Iognáid in the senior final.
It's all about community and the massive family involvement at Garbally College, and even since they lost their boarders, the school have learned to cope.
They won their first junior cup since the changeover last year, and after that 2015 senior cup success, a second place was as good as it got until this year. According to principal Reilly, none of that success would have been possible were it not for the fantastic community that surrounds the school, and works hard to help it thrive.
"We are very lucky to have such talented players in the school at the moment. Ballinasloe RFC would have been very strong underage up through the ranks. There is great communication and help and support there between the club and the school," said Reilly.
"One of our PE teachers does GAA, one of them looks after the rugby. We are very lucky we have a lot of extra volunteer coaches coming in from outside who are also involved in Ballinasloe RFC.
"People like Kevin Tierney, Mike Devine, Noel Mannion. Combined with former teachers, there are three retired teachers, Gerry Kelly of course who worked here in Garbally and former CEO in Connacht, Johnny Farrell who is with the junior team, and Frank Fahy who is with the U-14 team.
"That sort of goodwill and the help and support we get from the volunteer coaches that come into the school, it works very well.
"A lot of the lads would be in the Connacht youth academies. They do a lot of additional skills sessions with Connacht Rugby with Colm Tucker and Colm Galvin.
"That's very helpful as well. It brings up the skill level. You have the Connacht thing, the club thing and the schools working together to advance the skill levels of the players."
And although their junior side was edged out by rivals Marist College 20-17 in the junior final this year, there are plenty of positives emanating from that group too.
The future looks bright for Garbally College but like so many of the big rugby schools in Connacht, it's all about the hard work of the volunteers and people willing to go that extra mile for the students.
There's a lot of long hours put into the teams from first year upwards, but much of the basics of the game are taught well before that playing in the clubs.
"The junior side lost their final unfortunately. They are coached by Ronan Flanagan who puts huge effort into it," said Reilly.
"He drives rugby massively in the school. He looks after all the administration side of things, with contacts for the school and team sheets and fixtures. He is an excellent coach and coached the junior cup team that won last year as well.
"It is a collective effort in terms of the work that is being done and the help that the school gets from Ballinasloe RFC. The president Tom Horkan is very helpful in the coaches we get. He would be helping with the coaching in the school here too, in addition to retired teachers and our own PE teacher."