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A fitting tribute to 'mr rugby'

Marist's remarkable success owes so much to the late visionary Paddy Walsh, writes Tony Ward

Much like rugby superpowers Blackrock College and Terenure College (both celebrating their 150th anniversary), this academic year is a very special one in the lives of all associated with Marist College, Athlone.

In September 1884, the Marist Order opened its first boys' secondary school in Athlone. And 125 years, on the midlands school celebrates this momentous birth date going from strength to strength.

Rugby was introduced to the school in 1974 by the late Paddy Walsh, a teacher at the college. Bearing in mind that the Senior and Junior Cup competitions in Connacht have been going since 1913 and 1915, respectively, the progress made in such a relatively short time has been remarkable.

Just three years after he 'first picked up the ball and ran', so to speak, Walsh guided Marist to their first, and so far only, Senior Cup win when beating this year's favourites and first-round opponents Sligo Grammar in the 1977 final.

That team was led by Aidan Deegan and included Nick Kennedy, whose son Adam was captain of the beaten finalists in 2007 and 2008, the closest the school has come since to recapturing the elusive Holy Grail.

As recently as 1995, Marist reached their first Junior final, losing out to Garbally, but it is a measure of the extraordinary work being done at underage level that the school has gone on to contest six of the ten U-15 finals played in the new millennium, winning four (in 2000, '02, '05 and '07) and losing two ('04 and '08).

A year after reaching that first Junior final, in 1996, a rugby pitch was developed at the college with land provided by the Marist brothers and funding by the IRFU; the pitch and new dressing rooms proved of great benefit and an immense boost to students.

In 1998 'Mr Rugby' Walsh sadly passed away, but within two years came that first Junior Cup success when the result against Garbally was reversed from five years before.

In recognition of his great contribution the 'Paddy Walsh Memorial Trophy' is played for each year by schools in the area.

In 2007, Marist came within a whisker of becoming only the fifth school in the provincial competition to record a Junior and Senior double when the 'J' beat Garbally but the 'S' lost out to the same opposition in the U-18 final.

In the same year, former Ireland prop Phil Orr officially opened a new and fully equipped rugby conditioning room.

As rugby at the school grows in strength, so too the roll of honour, with recent past pupils including Conor O-Loughlin (Connacht, Irish Youth and Irish U-21), David Henshaw (Garryowen and Connacht), Adam Kennedy (Irish Youth), Mark Dolan (Irish Youth and Irish U-19) and Adrian Hanley (Irish Youth).

In order to mark the occasion of the 125th anniversary, Marist hosted Dublin sister school Marian College, Ballsbridge, with games at U-13, Junior and Senior levels in Dubarry Park and finishing with a celebratory reception in the Buccaneers clubhouse after.

The icing on the cake, however, would, of course, be either trophy returning to Athlone once again. It's a tall order but with Calasanctius and Sligo meeting at the opposite end of the Junior draw, opportunity certainly knocks. The rest will hardly agree, but wouldn't that just crown it all ever so nicely?