Monday 18 December 2017

From little acorns . . .

Schools rugby continues to flourish and foster the growth of Ireland's future icons

Eddie O'Sullivan

It was the late spring of 1994 and the Willow Park U-13's rugby team had just returned to the school to celebrate winning the U-13 Cup. It was obviously a momentous day for the young players and an exciting day for the school.

At the same time it hardly registered on the 'Richter Scale' of world rugby and probably didn't warrant a mention at the bottom of the rugby pages in the following day's newspapers. After all, it was just an U-13 rugby competition played amongst the Holy Ghost schools in the Dublin area: Willow Park, Blackrock College, St Michael's College, Templeogue College and St Mary's College.

During the celebrations of Coca-Cola and crisps an elderly Holy Ghost priest dropped in to congratulate the players. From his pocket he produced the U-13's Cup medal he had won during the 1930s. As somebody, who hadn't played rugby at school, it was an extraordinary insight into the history and traditions of schools rugby. For the young 12-year-olds it was a reminder that their achievement made them part of a tradition that extended back over 60 years.

Anybody who attends a schools rugby game will readily testify that tradition and passion runs very deep. The excitement that surrounds a cup tie between Presentation and Christians in Cork or Blackrock and Terenure in Dublin has to be experienced to be believed. That level of excitement is replicated on an ongoing basis every year throughout the country until St Patrick's weekend. Around that weekend the four provincial finals are contested and another chapter in Irish schools rugby is consigned to history.

Schools rugby consistently plays a huge part in player development and this fact is readily recognised by the IRFU. What is evident, as long as schools rugby has existed, is that Irish schools play an integral part in the player developmental pipelines that the IRFU support and manage. Also, the Irish development pipelines are the envy of most rugby-playing nations throughout the world.

In the last 25 years, Irish age-grade rugby has developed under a twin-track approach through youth and schools rugby. For the most part, youth rugby caters for the development of players who do not attend rugby-playing schools. The youth system to date has produced players such as Mick Galwey, John Hayes and Shane Horgan, who are icons of the modern Irish game. Having said that, the traditional schools system always has and still produces the vast majority of our professional and subsequently our international players.

To this end the IRFU remain hugely indebted to the Irish schools that run rugby programmes for their students year in, year out.

Of course the landscape of schools rugby has changed in recent years. The drop-off in religious vocations has meant the coaching baton, in many cases, has passed on to lay coaches who are for the most part teachers in those educational establishments.

This requires a huge commitment from individual schools in terms of time, energy, manpower and finances.

Despite the huge commitment required from schools to run programmes, schools rugby has never been in a healthier state throughout the country.

In fact, along with ongoing development within the traditional powerhouses of the game, in recent years new schools have entered the fray. St Saran's College, Ferbane, in the heartland of Offaly GAA territory, won the Connacht Schools Cup for the first time in 2004.

The standard of rugby within the Irish schools system is regularly put to the test when the Irish Schools team competes with England, Scotland and Wales. Also, on occasion they tour in the southern hemisphere. Historically, the Irish Schools have had consistent success at international level. Proof positive that the standard of schools coaching in Ireland is at least as good as anywhere else in the world. As a further testimony to the sterling work carried out at schools level: In the Ireland v Scotland Six Nations game of 2008, when Tony Buckley ran on as a substitute he joined Geordan Murphy, Bernard Jackman and Jamie Heaslip as four former pupils of Newbridge College. Quite an extraordinary achievement for the small school in Co Kildare.

Occasionally there has been criticism from some quarters of schools rugby on the basis that it is very intense and hugely pressurised. Be that as it may, it is also true that the competitiveness of schools rugby is something that young players enjoy and revel in. Along with the unique experience of representing one's school, it is important in the development of players who progress to the upper echelons of the game after school. Like any player who has played Schools Cup rugby, Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara or Paul O'Connell will vividly remember the day they either won or were knocked out of the Schools Cup. But they will also verify the important role that schools rugby played in their development to the world-class professional players they have become.

No doubt this year's Schools Cup competitions will be as competitive as ever in all four provinces. There will be tears of joy and tears of disappointment. Even if the medals that are won may not be readily available for display in 60 years time, surely the memories will remain as vivid as the day they occurred.

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