Tuesday 20 February 2018

Edmund Van Esbeck: Irish game in debt to schools rugby

IT was at schools level that competitive rugby was first played in Ireland when the Ulster Schools Senior Cup was inaugurated in 1876. That predates any other competition at any level of the game in this country.

Indeed there is only one other competition worldwide that predates the Ulster Senior Cup and that is the Hospitals Cup in England which was started a year previously in 1875.

The Leinster Schools Senior Cup started in 1886, the Munster Schools Cup in 1909 and the Connacht Senior Cup in 1913.

From the outset the competitions generated a level of enthusiasm that, not alone has never diminished, but which has grown in fervour through the years.

The young, the not so young and the old come in their thousands to enjoy the unique atmosphere that the schools game embraces.

We have reached that time of year where venues throughout the country reverberate to the chants of hope and encouragement and for the young players, the memories and experience will stay with them as long as memory holds.

There are some who like to knock rugby at schools level, indeed at every level. They talk of its alleged elite nature.

Hidebound by their prejudice and bigotry, they conveniently forget that the spread of the rugby game in the schools of this country was severely restricted by the fact that it was banned in so many schools throughout the land for so long.

But thankfully that is now changing rapidly and how splendid it is to see so many schools now playing the game where in the not too distant past, the very mention of rugby or so called "foreign" games was akin to being a traitor.

That "ban or be damned" attitude, both from within so many schools and in the wider arena of life in this country, imposed shackles on rugby and other sports in this country. But things, fortunately, are changing. Being elite has many forms.

But let us not forget the huge debt we owe to those schools who, in many cases for well over a century, have year after year prepared and sent out their teams to compete in what have been and continue to be wonderful competitions.

For many of them the ultimate reward of Cup triumph proved and continues to prove outside the range of their ability, but has not diminished the will or enthusiasm. The very same can be said for so many clubs and counties in any sport you wish to name.

In every sport we have some clubs and teams and counties who traditionally do not win the major trophies.

In every sport there are clubs, and schools and counties who traditionally send out teams who are contenders for the major honours.

Far from being criticised for their achievements, they should be commended on the level of excellence that they have maintained through the years and the countless splendid players they have given to the game.

The schools game always has and always will be fundamental to the welfare of rugby in this country. A huge debt is owed to them.

The schools internationals added a new dimension when in 1975, the IRFU decided that, for the first time, Ireland would compete at schools level in the international arena.

A match was arranged against England to mark the centenary of the IRFU. Not everyone in the corridors of power favoured Ireland playing at schools level. There was a misguided belief that it was wrong for schoolboys to be playing in the international arena.

Thankfully wiser judgement prevailed and once the inaugural match against England was played, it led to Ireland competing on a regular basis at schools international level.

We have had Ireland schools teams tour to Australia and New Zealand and teams from those countries and elsewhere overseas playing here.

The schools internationals widen the scope of the young players' experience and hasten their development. Just reflect on the number of those who have been honoured at schools level who have then gone on to play for Ireland at senior international level.

When that inaugural schools international took place, Ireland did not play at any other level other than the full senior internationals. The following season Ireland played a match against Scotland at what was termed 'B' level. Thus a huge gap between the schools and the senior scene at international level.

All that, too, has changed and now we have internationals at youth, under 19, and under 21 levels. Indeed World Cups. on the underage scene.

The Ireland schools team that played in that inaugural international in 1975 was: M Quaid (Rockwell). J Bowen (PBC Cork), J Molloy (Castleknock), J Murphy (PBC Bray), A McKibbin (RBAI); M Finn (PBC Cork), J Sexton (Castleknock); J Langnbroek (Blackrock), H Harbison (Blackrock), J McCoy (Portora). W Howard (Wallace HS), B Clifford (PBC Cork), G Molloy (Blackrock), D Spring (Roscrea),) capt., H Donnelly (Dungannon RS). Replacement: R Kearney (Newbridge)

Now a remarkable feature of that team was that no fewer than nine of the 16 who played went on to win senior caps. They were Jimmy Bowen, John Murphy, Aliistair McKibbin, Moss Finn, Job Langbroek, Harry Harbison, Jim McCoy, Donal Spring and Ronan Kearney.

The following season Hugo MacNeill, McKibbin, McCoy, and Wilie Sexton were on the Ireland schools team and in 1977 Paul Dean, Donal Lenihan, Brian McCall, and Phlip Matthews were honoured at schools level. Through the years the progression from schools to full caps has continued and in a country with a relatively small playing population that kind of progression was invaluable. When Ireland won the Triple Crown in 1982, MacNeill, Michael Kiernan, Dean, Finn, and Lenihan were all on the side having honed their skills initially in the Ireland jersey at schools level.

In 1985 when the Triple Crown and Championship were won again the side included no fewer than eight players who had represented Ireland at schools level.

They were MacNeill, Brendan Mullin, Michael Kiernan, Dean, Michael Bradley, McCoy, Lenihan, and Philip Matthews. That season, too, two other former schools internationals played for Ireland against Australia Ronan Kearney and Willie Sexton.

Everyone of those players will acknowledge that the incentive and experience they gained by playing for Ireland as schoolboys were crucial in their development.

The flow continues - 12 of the Ireland 2003 World Cup squad had been honoured at schools level.

For far too long there was in fact too much dependence on the schools and not nearly enough was done by too many clubs to help and encourage boys from non-rugby playing schools to play the game.

But that also has changed radically. The inauguration of the Ireland Youths side was a major step forward as have other initiatives that have been taken.

I would have no problem naming dozens of players who have represented Ireland through the years who did not go to rugby playing schools. Now in this new era we shall see many more and that has to be for the benefit of the game in Ireland.

But the history of the game in this country leaves no doubt at all that without the schools, and what they have contributed, the game could not have been maintained in any meaningful way for Ireland in the realm of international rugby.

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