How schools rugby shaped our careers
Four legends of the game tell Tony Ward about their Senior Cup memories
WHAT SCHOOL DID YOU ATTEND?
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MERVYN MURPHY: Colaiste Iognaid, Galway (The Jes).
GORDON D'ARCY: Clongowes Wood College, Clane, Co. Kildare.
JERRY FLANNERY: St Munchin's College, Limerick.
TOMMY BOWE: Royal School Armagh.
EARLIEST MEMORIES OF SCHOOLS RUGBY?
MM: After school running down to train in 'The Swamp' in the cold and the rain and loving it! The excitement in the build-up to a schools game, my poor mother trying to boil the shorts white, packing the gear bag, gum shields and hot water, the smell of Deep Heat in the changing rooms, the camaraderie with your friends... and skipping classes for away games!
GD: Playing under-13s rugby on the B/C team as a hooker and losing to Blackrock by 40 points on a cold, muddy day and loving every minute of it.
JF: Watching Anthony Foley run riot in the Senior Cup when I was in first year.
TB: When in first year we played an English side on tour. I remember thinking how cool it would be to tour with your best friends. Since then touring has always been my favourite part of rugby.
MOST MEMORABLE SCHOOLS MATCHES PLAYED IN?
MM: Junior Cup final 1987 versus Garbally College. We played our hearts out that day and beat them against all the odds. I can still remember running home as fast as I could with the medal, proud as punch. I think it's our last Junior Cup win to date.
GD: The final in 1998 against Terenure. We had a very expansive game plan up until the day of the match. Vinnie and Noel Murray changed it on the bus to the match, asking Henry Burke and I to run off the 9 - no matter where we were on the pitch. It worked!
JF: Senior Cup final, St Munchin's College v CBC in 1997. We were the rugby equivalent of 'Mighty Ducks', a rag-tag bunch faced with the impossible task of defeating the mighty CBC. One of our second-row's legs were so skinny that his bicycle shorts didn't touch his quads, while CBC had a 120kg Donncha O'Callaghan in their second row. Nobody gave us a chance but Jeremy Staunton had a stormer and we took the lead with ten minutes to go. Unfortunately we didn't have our Hollywood ending as CBC nicked a couple of late scores to take the cup, but it was an incredible game to play in.
In that game I also made a line break, chipped the full-back, re-gathered the ball and off-loaded to a team mate. At the time I thought I was great but as the years went on it became a bit depressing when I realised I'd peaked skill-wise at 18 and would never repeat anything like that again. [TW: Typical Fla' - modest in the extreme!]
TB: Unfortunately most of my stand-out moments were losing big games. we lost in the quarter-finals of the Medallion Shield and quarter-finals both years in the Senior Cup.
MOST TALENTED SCHOOLBOY OPPONENT?
MM: Willie Ruane [current Connacht CEO] played for Garbally. He was a scrum-half too, so we came up against each other often and he was the same size back then as he is now. Willie was strong and aggressive with great footwork and a very good kicking game. A real competitor, never stopped chirping his way through the game! We ended up becoming good mates at Galwegians and Connacht.
GD: Andrew Dunne. I played 10 briefly at Junior level against Andy and he turned me inside out and upside down. Devastating acceleration, superb game management and a genuine leader. He led and inspired victory against New South Wales in Donnybrook in 1998 for Leinster schoolboys.
JF: Paul Neville was a phenomenal No8 for Ardscoil Rís, whilst Andy Dunne of Belvedere College and Brian O'Driscoll of Blackrock College were stand-out players in the backs. Cormac Dowling from Pres Bray was on another level back then too.
TB: Robert Conway, wing for Coleraine Inst.
SCHOOLBOY HEROES IN YOUR OWN SCHOOL?
MM: Neil Taylor was a phenomenal player for us, not just as a back-row talisman but a genuine leader. He was tough as teak, never took a backward step and had an engine that just kept going and going. Little surprise he went on to serve in the Irish Army Ranger Wing.
GD: I had the pleasure of watching John Lacey play. Had injury not played a part, I think he would have gone further in the sport. A superb understanding of space, making the ball do the work and putting others into space, a-la Will Greenwood.
JF: Anthony Foley was my hero from day one in St Munchin's. Ian Ryan was the hooker on the team two years ahead of me and I loved his aggression on the field. Kevin Hartigan and Michael Roberts were two fantastic players that I was lucky enough to play with, but I have to mention Leonard Moore as probably the hardest player I have played with. I absolutely loved having him on my team. He was our scrum-half and was an absolute animal on the field.
TB: Gareth Steenson [Exeter Chiefs] was in my team at school. At that stage he was head and shoulders above the rest of us, so he was someone we all looked up to.
DO THE SCHOOLS STILL HAVE AN IMPORTANT ROLE TO PLAY?
MM: Absolutely, between home and school is where my love for the game started. Life lessons.
GD: I think their role has grown in importance. The provincial academies are almost exclusively reliant on the schools system. The quality in the competitions has increased almost year on year and the senior game has benefited from this.
JF: Absolutely. From a professional point of view the level of preparation that goes into schools rugby these days means that players are coming straight out of school and really raising the standard of the pro game in Ireland. James Ryan and Jordan Larmour are great examples of this. Now kids see Johnny Sexton winning World Player of the Year and see that the pathway is there for them to reach the very top. The best thing about this is that it really drives interest in the sport and gets more kids to pick up the ball and play the game.
TB: Yes, I believe they have an extremely important role. Look at the conveyor belt of schoolboys coming into the Leinster set-up; they have been acting as professionals since the age of 14. The level of coaching and off-field support schoolkids get now is incredible and can only be good for Irish rugby. I also believe the second- and third-tier schools are equally as important. These schools grow the game around the country, encouraging players to enjoy the game and discover a few gems that will make it to the very top level.
ONE WORD TO SUM UP THE GAME IN THE SCHOOLS?
AND THE SENIOR CUP WINNER THIS YEAR IN YOUR PROVINCE WILL BE?
MM: Colaiste Iognaid, fingers crossed!
GD: My alma mater, CWC.
JF: St Munchin's College.
TB: Has to be Armagh (RSA).
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