Munchin's out to prove they can upset odds
Limerick school keeps churning out talent despite disadvantages, writes Cian Tracey
St Munchin's College has undergone a massive redevelopment in the last few years. Gone are the boarding school days and the pew-like classroom seats, and in their place are hi-tech classrooms along with a new state-of-the-art indoor PE hall and a separate gym for the sports teams.
The building may be a shadow of its former self but the school's principles are unchanged, while the corridors remain steeped in rugby history.
The five-times Munster Senior Cup winners have disappointed in the last few years, however.
Munchin's last lifted the trophy in 2006 – which was their third title in five years – and a return to cup glory would be most welcome.
The victorious 2006 team included Keith Earls, Ger Slattery (who was recently capped by Munster and is Munchin's assistant coach) and Liam Og Murphy, now an international with USA.
When you consider that a certain Conor Murray was unable to force his way into the starting XV that day, you get a fair idea of the depth of talent that the school had at its disposal.
Since 2006, St Munchin's have reached just one cup final – they were beaten by Rockwell by a single point in 2012. Perhaps it was no coincidence that John Broderick was persuaded to take over the team for this year's competition.
Broderick, who is now best known for his punditry with TG4, was central to all three of Munchin's titles in the 'noughties' ('02, '04 & '06). A former AIL coach, Broderick played a major role in the development of current Irish internationals Earls, Murray, Donnacha Ryan and Damien Varley.
Munchin's eight-year cup drought has coincided with their inability to keep up with other schools that have the financial muscle to introduce academy-like structures.
"One of the biggest challenges we face is that we are a non-fee-paying school competing against a number of fee-paying schools. It's very difficult to set up coaching structures that other schools have," Broderick admits.
"For instance, we played Blackrock in Dublin recently and they had their own director of rugby, a strength and conditioning coach, a physio and a large coaching staff.
"There are no fees involved in our school whatsoever, so we are depending on teaching staff and past pupils to dedicate their time voluntarily.
"It's not just the Dublin schools that have done this – the fee-paying schools in Cork have similar systems in place. We've been trying to keep up with them over the last few years."
Nevertheless, plenty of exciting young talents continue to emerge from Munchin's, which is testament to the school.
"We always get large numbers out training and have continued to produce elite players for the Munster sub-academy, the senior team and various Irish teams at different age groups," says Broderick.
"Our main focus is keeping up the number of students playing rugby and to make sure they're enjoying it. We need to stay as competitive as we realistically can."
Broderick, who confirmed that this would be his final year in charge of the Senior team, maintains that Munchin's should have had more cup success in recent years.
"We got to the final in 2012 and probably left it behind us. It's important to remember that the boarding school closed in 2005, and a lot said we wouldn't win a cup after that, but we did so a year later.
"We should really have gotten to one or two more finals in the meantime."
Schools rugby has become like a pre-academy in that it acts as a direct feeder to provincial set-ups. Strength and conditioning has become a major aspect of the schools game and Munchin's, like most of their rivals, are now introducing that type of coaching at Junior Cup level.
Broderick also feels that Munster could be doing a lot more to assist schools in the development of their players – many of whom go on to represent the province.
"Schools need more professional help from Munster. They should be coming in and having a look at what you're doing and helping to improve that. It would be hugely beneficial if they gave more expertise to a system that produces a lot of their players," he added.
Munchin's begin their cup campaign on January 29 against PBC, who have the advantage of having a game under their belt after defeating Bandon in the qualifier game.
Munchin's and PBC's rivalry is one of the oldest in schools rugby and Broderick is fully aware of the task that faces his side.
"It's a massive challenge for us to go down and play them in Cork. We've played them already this season and they beat us well. They're very strong all over the park, but we'll be ready to meet that challenge," he says.
Munchin's preparations haven't been going all that well, though. This year's team is a very young side that includes several fifth-year students.
"If there is something in this team, we haven't seen it yet!" Broderick jokes. "We had a lot of problems early on, when we had coaches in place, but they got attracted to AIL clubs who could offer money.
"I don't blame the players in any way but we've had a poor pre-season. We suffered heavy defeats to Terenure and Blackrock in Dublin. The team hasn't really come together yet."
Munchin's name some of last year's team who were beaten in the semi-final. Luke O'Halloran will captain the side having missed last year's cup through injury – his return is a huge boost to the side. However, they are sweating on the fitness of Edward O'Keefe, who suffered a re-occurrence of a cruciate ligament injury. O'Keefe was one of Munchin's stand-out performers last year.
Munchin's may have endured a tough pre-season but that will undoubtedly stand to them when they kick off their cup campaign.
One thing is for sure; the school will remain as competitive as ever and will continue to produce some of the province's finest talents.