Saturday 18 November 2017

Ireland's achievements justify exalted status of the schools game

Sean Diffley

I don't know whether it is simply a case of ignorance, sheer begrudgery, or even worse, inverted snobbery, but certain quarters seem to have made it their life's ambition to dismiss Schools Cup rugby to perdition. At the very least, this select few want it out of the newspapers, which they consider the most heinous punishment.

I have mentioned ignorance, begrudgery, invert snobbery, but should I also have mentioned jealousy? Anyway, does schools rugby get too much publicity in our newspapers? The point, surely, is that editors tend to have a fair idea what their readers enjoy and schools rugby is appreciated as much as circulations dictate.

So, enough of the nonsense about over-exposure.

However, what must be stressed is the momentous contribution that Irish schools rugby makes to the game in this small island.

Remember, Ireland has one of the smallest number of adult rugby players in all of the major nations. Greater Manchester, for example, has many more players than the whole of this island.

In fact, England, Wales and France each has a minimum of double the number of players that the Irish have.

So, when you look at the current situation -- the Irish are Grand Slam, Heineken Cup and Magners League champions -- you must ask how we have risen to become the top country in Europe?

The answer is that Ireland is unique in having a remarkable nursery of schools in all four provinces. The children who attend those rugby-playing colleges have the benefit of dedicated -- and unpaid -- coaches who prepare kids from a young age right up to the giddy heights of the senior U-18 cup-competing teams.

And as some famous internationals will tell you, their greatest moment was not pulling on the green jersey for the first time, but the unforgettable thrill of wearing the school jersey in their first Schools Cup match.

Of last season's Grand Slam performers, all but one were formerly noted schools players. The exception was prop John Hayes who began his career with Bruff in Limerick.

Scanning over teams through the years, I cannot spot any others who didn't come through the schools, but the IRFU, to their credit, and, in particular junior provincial clubs, are promoting youth categories which, in time, will yield results.

Winning a Schools Cup medal was, of course, the height of many a well-known player's career, while several of the most famous smile wryly at their failure to lift the spoils, usually on St Patrick's Day.

Tony O'Reilly, for Belvedere, lost to Niall Brophy's Blackrock, while Brian O'Driscoll and Fergus Slattery were others who have failed to sample the ultimate schools' glory.

I remember Tom McGinty -- captain of Old Belvedere's second team -- mentioning to O'Reilly that he had sent a message of good wishes on the morning of the Schools Cup final.

Tony O'Reilly returned a moment later with a large scrapbook and there was McGinty's good luck message. The Lions' record try-scorer had his priorities in proper order.

Irish Independent

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