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Four greats of the game recall their schoolboy memories

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Leo Cullen has fond memories of watching Victor Costello in action and taking inspiration from his performances. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Leo Cullen has fond memories of watching Victor Costello in action and taking inspiration from his performances. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Leo Cullen has fond memories of watching Victor Costello in action and taking inspiration from his performances. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Willie Anderson, Leo Cullen, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Donal Lenihan tell Tony Ward how their formative years set them on the road to glory.

What school did you attend?

Willie Anderson: Omagh Academy, Co Tyrone.

Leo Cullen: Blackrock College, Dublin.

Ciaran Fitzgerald: St Joseph’s College Garbally, Ballinasloe.

Donal Lenihan: Christian Brothers College (CBC), Cork

Earliest memories of schools rugby?

WA: Travelling to Orangefield in Belfast as a first year in Omagh Academy to support the 1st XV. They lost 3-0.

LC: Watching Victor Costello. The whole stand was chanting “Give it to Victor.”

He was close to being unstoppable off the back of the scrum.

I remember when his team won the Senior Cup and they came around to my class in Willow Park to show off the cup. I think I was in sixth class.

CF: I only played three friendly rugby matches in my Leaving Cert year. Garbally were beaten in the hurling championship and the rugby team were stuck for a hooker. Fr John Kirby (now Bishop Kirby) said at the time that I reminded him of a guy in previous years who was a very good hooker, so I got the gig for three matches.

We were not allowed play competitive rugby.

DL: The 1972 Senior Cup final between St Munchin’s and CBC in Limerick. I was in First year, having arrived from a national school the previous September where hurling and football were the only sports that mattered.

I didn’t really understand the hype surrounding the schools cup until that day. Thomond Park was full and the atmosphere was brilliant.

CBC won and the team was paraded in front of the whole school the following day. I wanted to be part of that some day.

Most memorable schools matches played in?

WA: I played against Methodist College (Methody) in the early seventies at home in Omagh and lost 12-3.

This was significant as Methody went on to win the Schools Cup that year under David Wells.

It was also a match after which the players on both sides were unrecognisable at the end of the game because the pitch was so mucky.

LC: The 1995 final against Clongowes was a real thriller which we managed to win 8-3 in horrific weather. The following year we had it a little easier against Newbridge – 37-3. 

CF: My rugby was confined to friendlies. Without doubt my most memorable early experience was travelling up to Dublin to play Blackrock.

I hadn’t a clue as to the Williamstown school’s pedigree and even less of a clue as to the game’s rules, given my background in GAA to that point (modesty prevents him saying it, but Ciaran lined out for Galway in the 1970 minor hurling final).

All I know is that I spent the journey up reading a rugby rule book, but obviously very little went in as I gave away at least six penalties for offside. We lost.      

DL: Two games stand out. The 1976 senior final against great city rivals PBC at Musgrave Park has gone down in schools folklore. We won by a point with a drop goal from scrum half Alex O’Regan in the ninth minute of injury-time.

There was consternation.

All the PBC supporters were perched on the perimeter wall of the pitch, ready to invade on the final whistle.

Their CBC counterparts had to negotiate their way through them in order to get to the field.

The referee Billy Dowling was never allowed forget that day. He wasn’t the only one.

The following year we beat Pres once again, but by twice as much this time, a whopping two-point margin.

I was lucky enough to captain the team and that made it very special.

It was my last game in the CBC jersey and meant that I had gone through my entire schools career without ever losing a cup game at Junior or Senior.

Most talented schoolboy opponent?

WA: Ballymena Academy out-half Adrian Goodrich, the current Greystones RFC President. He was brilliant and captained Ballymena in rugby and cricket at every level throughout the school.

LC: Geordan Murphy (Newbridge College out-half).

CF: Sean Silke (in both hurling and rugby).

DL: The best schools player I came across was on my own team for years. Jim Crotty was but one of a famous CBC sporting family and was lightening at schools level.

He was bigger and faster than everybody else at that time and had the ability to make opposition players look silly. We knew that even if we were behind in games, we could feed Jim on the wing and the chances were that he would produce a try. He rarely let us down.

Schoolboy heroes in your own school?

WA: Ken McGirr who was

captain of the firsts and epitomised what tough, hard rugby was all about.

LC: Shane Byrne and Barry

Gibney. One a very mobile ball-carrying hooker, the other an outstanding flanker and leader (captain of the cup winning sides in ’95 and ’96).

CF: Ray McLoughlin. He enjoyed legendary status in his time at Garbally and in so many ways was ahead of his time.

Regularly he would be found up in the school attic working on his personal weight training schedule.

Indeed, when I made my debut for Connacht, the front five comprised Pheilim and Ray McLoughlin on either side of me and Mick Molloy alongside Leo Galvin immediately behind.

All former Garbally pupils. Talk about an armchair ride.

DL: Given that CBC won four in a row between 1971 and 1974, there were several in my early years, many of whom I would go on to play alongside in adult rugby, including Munster’s 1978 try-scoring hero against New Zealand Christy Cantillon.

Jerry Holland and Anthony O’Leary won three senior medals in a row, which also afforded them an extra special status.

Do the schools still have a big role to play in Irish rugby?

WA: Yes, I believe that schools

rugby is very significant to the further development of Irish

rugby.

LC: Absolutely. They have a massive role. We are so lucky to have young players being brought through a system that promotes such good values.

CF: Very much. They are a great nursery and yet we must guard against over-competitiveness at the expense of skill development.

Also, I would be concerned at the amount of talent lost (those not making cup squads) specifically in the bigger, stronger rugby-playing schools.

DL: Arguably more important now than ever, given the necessity to see quality players coming through to feed the professional requirements of the provinces and the national team.

I have a major concern however that the professional standards set by the provinces have filtered down to schools level and the enjoyment seems to have gone from the schools game.

The commitment is over the top. As a consequence many players have had enough of the game by the time they leave school, give it up altogether within a few years and are lost to the club game.

One word to sum up the game in the schools?

WA: Competitive.

LC: Fearless.

CF: Great.

DL: Intense.

And the Senior Cup winners this year in your province will be?

WA: Wallace have not been beaten yet, but I think the dark horses could be Sullivan.

LC: Has to be Blackrock, although I hear St Michael’s are hot favourites!

CF: Garbally.

DL: I’m led to believe my former school are favourites. They haven’t won it for years so it would be great if CBC came out on top.

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