Friday 20 September 2019

Don't knock schools rugby, it's the bedrock of our sport

Cistercian College Roscrea players celebrate after prop Dylan Murphy scores a last-minute try to beat Blackrock College in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup second round at Donnybrook last month
Cistercian College Roscrea players celebrate after prop Dylan Murphy scores a last-minute try to beat Blackrock College in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup second round at Donnybrook last month
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I would like to address some of the myths surrounding schools rugby currently being perpetuated by some who should know better - and I suspect do know better.

Let me begin by addressing the issue of coverage in the media. Yes, schools rugby does get extensive exposure in all media forms, and why do you think that is? It is because the interest is there - period.

As someone at the heart of that coverage, I can tell you it is growing exponentially. Editors aren't stupid. They get to where they are for good reason and addressing the areas of most obvious interest appears on page one, paragraph one of the 'How To Be An Editor' guide.

But let's get down to the nitty gritty. As someone who came through the schools system, but from a working-class background of which I am extremely proud, I take huge offence when I hear the game I know still being described as elitist.

Yes it once was, and of course more could be done to spread the rugby gospel, but Rome wasn't built in a day, and slowly but surely the sport is becoming available to an increasing number of kids everywhere.

And let's be clear: it is education, not rugby, that makes school life tick. Of course it is disappointing when any school comes up short in whatever the prevailing activity at the time of the year, but to suggest that the atmosphere in a school is determined by a sporting result is simply untrue.


We are told by self-appointed experts that in Leinster particularly, everything builds towards the cup and towards one game. That is not the case - the system that has been in place in Leinster since the early 90s is the envy of most.

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Even before the Leinster Schools League (for all but the Big Six schools) and the now immensely beneficial Fr Godfrey Cup and Vinnie Murray Cup, plus the various Developmental tournaments, the schools season did not hang on that one-off day in Donnybrook - and yes I have experienced that in my time playing Senior Cup rugby when losing to Belvedere and a certain Ollie Campbell in the opening round way back when.

No, schools rugby is built around a prestigious friendly calendar embracing fixtures the length and breadth of the land. And the net is spreading in that respect.

These games, though 'friendly' in name are anything but in reality. Yet they are central to the rugby year and, yes, they form part of the gradual build-up towards the cup.

If you qualify for the league play-offs in Leinster you enter the main cup draw with the big six schools (who still have the option of forming their own league) and even if you don't, qualification to the main event can be gained through the Godfrey and Murray cups at junior and senior.

So much for this one big game all year nonsense. On the back of that system (implemented by St Paul's, Raheny) the Leinster schools blueprint is as close as it gets to perfect, catering as it does for the smaller schools varying in ability from year to year.

Yes, you will still get the occasional mismatch but they have become less frequent as the system has gone from strength to strength.

In Munster, where the small number of rugby-playing schools is the issue, they have long had a developmental competition for 'B' schools with the winner qualifying for a play-off with a Section 'A' school and, with it, the possibility of qualification for the main competition. Even then a place in the final four is based on a two-match qualifying round.

In Connacht, where there are even fewer long-established rugby schools, a Champions League-type round-robin system operates, ensuring four cup games as well as a pre-Christmas league under much the same rules and conditions.

Nowhere is it about one single game, with schools from Ulster joining the other three provinces in home and away fixtures that really matter to boys brought up on the history and tradition within the various schools.

There are so many misconceptions I want to address.

It is not all about winning and, for sure, school work is not second to rugby. Disappointment in a school environment - whether on the sporting field or in a debating chamber - is natural.

It reflects a unity of spirit that should be admired, not admonished. To lose is one of many life-forming lessons experienced in youth through sport.

It's called life and happens in a schools rugby context within a highly supportive network. Here again, take it from one who lost Junior and Senior Cup semi-finals - the latter when captain of a St Mary's side that won every game that season bar the semi-final to High School at Lansdowne when just a single point (10-9) broke our hearts. Have I forgotten it? Clearly not. Did it turn me off rugby for life? Did I feel my life was ruined? Get a grip.

The schools system is not perfect, but it is as close as it gets. There are aspects I hate such as recruiting (and here, it is overly ambitious parents much more than a handful of schools that are to blame), the whole area surrounding nutrition and supplements, plus the increasing emphasis on power as opposed to skill development.

The life values - good and bad - associated with sport cannot be instilled any better than through the team experience.

Schools rugby is the bedrock of our game. We tinker with it at our peril.


A case of pot calling Kettle black in Munster?

Munster CEO Garret Fitzgerald had our full support when criticising the Pro12 and the Six Nations for the decision to stage their first game at the newly-developed Independent Park on the same day as Ireland took on France.  

The head of Munster rugby was spot on in his assessment that Pro12 games should not be staged in a country which is at home that day in the Six Nations. It is a fair, reasonable and logical statement that "it is not fair on supporters who would like to attend both games".

Nothing unreasonable about that except when it comes to Champions Cup or Pro12 fixtures overlapping with All-Ireland Club games we hear not a dicky bird.

Not for a minute are we suggesting that the fault is entirely on the side of Munster Rugby - some clubs operate in a planet of their own, not even communicating with the opposition beyond informing them of the date and time of a fixture.

There is an element of the pot calling the kettle black when any province cries foul, yet the bottom line is the need for much better communication and compromise for the benefit of the punters they profess to love so much.

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