Wednesday 18 July 2018

'It’s unlikely those numbers would be matched again' - 21 years ago 'The Dream Team' dominated schools rugby

1996 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning captain Barry Gibney (inset) alongside his team before kick-off in the final.
1996 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning captain Barry Gibney (inset) alongside his team before kick-off in the final.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Given that they have produced 68 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning sides - with the possibility of a 69th this afternoon - it is obvious that Blackrock College have churned out plenty of teams dripping with talent.

It would be a bit spurious to start getting misty-eyed about the quality of the generation that won six in-a-row from 1900-1905 or the crop that brought five successive senior crowns back to Williamstown between 1953 and 1957, when a look at the recent past highlights some of the greatest collections of players to have ever graced the competition.

In 2014, a year after Garry Ringrose slalomed past tacklers like an Olympic skier in a side that was gifted but considered underdogs by Blackrock's standards, the school turned out a back row of Caelan Doris, Conor Oliver and Nick Timoney. The latter two have made their senior professional debuts while Doris, who was described by his Ireland U20 coach Peter Malone as having 'limitless potential', will soon follow.

Oh, and that team also had a handy ball-player at fifteen. A kid from Athy named Joey Carbery.

And it's almost a decade since the 2009 vintage led by Jordi Murphy at second row and containing the searing pace of Brendan Macken and Andrew Conway tore defences apart.

That team was so good that they were almost talked about in almost the same breath as THAT Blackrock side, but '09 was merely a demi-Dream Team compared to the 1996 squad who are still held up as the greatest schools side ever.

Nobody is entirely sure who bestowed the Dream Team moniker on Barry Gibney's all-conquering outfit - Tony Ward denies it! - but it's hard to argue with it when Ireland's greatest rugby player had to be content with a place on the bench.

In Brian O'Driscoll's defence, one centre position was occupied by future Ireland international David Quinlan, and as replacement scrum-half, he was behind another player who would wear the green jersey in Ciaran Scally, who was so talented that he played international rugby just over two years after his last schools cup appearance.

Flanker Gibney holds a special place in schools rugby lore as one of the select few to captain two senior cup-winning sides, leading Blackrock to glory in 1995 and again the following year.

"I think it was more a reference to the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson US basketball team!," Gibney says of his side's Dream Team nickname.

"It did become attached to us, I suppose. It is a nice accolade to have but there have been a lot of great teams.

"You don’t really think about it when you are involved, but you know you have a strong team when you have so many players involved in the Irish schools set-up and the Leinster schools set-up. I think nine of the team went to Australia [on a representative tour]. Then five of the team went on to win senior caps for Ireland and quite a number played professionally both in Ireland and England or Wales. Looking back, you say that it’s unlikely those numbers would be matched again."

What secured the 1996 side's legacy wasn't just what they achieved that year, but what came before and after.

1995 was similarly successful, with nine starters and more squad players returning to Blackrock the following year having already tasted senior cup success. And five of the matchday squad from the 37-3 annihilation of Geordan Murphy's Newbridge in the final 21 years ago went on to play for Ireland - the trio of Quinlan, Scally and O'Driscoll along with Leo Cullen and Bob Casey.

"Professionalism came along at just the right time for the team as they left the schools system and into the Ireland U21's and through the Ireland A ranks," Gibney says.

"We didn’t realise at the time how much of the team was going to go professional in both a playing and coaching capacity, no more so than the current Leinster set-up with Leo Cullen as head coach and Peter Smyth [hooker in '95 and '96] as head of the academy.

"There could have been more, but there’s quite a high attrition rate in rugby and there are a few more players that if things had have fallen a different way, they could have gone on to represent Ireland."

Scally was one who definitely would have achieved great things had a knee injury not curtailed his career after five Ireland appearances at just 21. Gibney was another, not even lasting that long after picking up a similar ailment that brought his playing days to a close not long after making his Leinster debut alongside Shane Horgan.

"There was bone damage, cartilage damage and cruciate damage to my right knee," he says.

"It happened in a club game when I was actually returning from a shoulder injury I suffered making my debut for Leinster against Ulster with Shane Horgan.

"I knew it was bad, I knew there was some serious damage done at the time. I didn’t know that it would be a career-threatening injury but that was that."

Gibney was possibly the most decorated schoolboy player ever, also winning a Junior Cup medal while Tony Ward named him in his all-time Irish schools side at openside flanker. He even got the better of a future Australia star during a victorious Irish schools tour to Australia.

"Phil Waugh was captain of the Australian schools team, I was captain of the Irish schools team," Gibney remembers.

"He was seven, I was seven, it was captain on captain. We won the game."

"I suppose I was the short-stop seven, the groundhog that could do a bit of everything," he says of his style of play.

"The first link with the backline who should be able to be the supporting player between the backs and the forwards and essentially be able to win ball, retain ball and steal as much opposition ball as you can and look to launch counter-attacks. That was it, in a nutshell."

It has been almost 20 years since the Dream Team played their last game together, and although some members are still operating in the professional game, their achievements as schoolboys come back into view every St Patrick's Day.

As the man who led them into battle, Gibney is surprised and honoured that the class of '96 live on.

"I’m still in awe and surprised that nearly every there is some sort of media coverage given to Dream Team and 20 years after that it is still being talked about quite humbling," Gibney said.

"Every year the fond memories of the occasions come back."

Blackrock College 1996:

15. Tom Keating

14. Michael Price

13. Greg Duffy

12. David Quinlan

11. David Johnson

10. Niall O'Donovan

9. Ciaran Scally

1. Trevor O'Rouke

2. Peter Smyth

3. Stephen Tanner

4. Keith Murphy

5. Bob Casey

6. Richard Woods

7. Barry Gibney (C)

8. Leo Cullen

 

16. Gareth Ryan

17. Mark Fearon

18. John Spellman

19. Conor Coughlan

20. Brian O'Driscoll

21. Shane Kelly

22. Darragh Kavanagh

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport