Thursday 26 April 2018

Then a hero comes along

Hugh Farrelly

TO us kids, the senior team were not just men, they were gods. You worshiped them from the cathedral that was Musgrave or Thomond Park on Schools Cup day, where the congregation chanted their hymns of faith with a fervour that can only be elicited by pure zealotry.

Back in the schoolyard, these deities strolled among us and if you happened to be acknowledged by one of those exotic, stubbled heroes it granted you instant kudos with envious peers.

In those terms, it is not hard to see why the schools rugby scene has been so successfully and hilariously lampooned by Paul Howard through his Ross O'Carroll Kelly creation and, when one thinks back, the memories arrive with a side order of cringe.

It is why I have never gone in for the "what school did you go to?" stuff that persists in Irish rugby circles long after the Leaving Cert has been left behind, having always found the sight of middle-aged men wearing school scarves and mocking each other with adolescent intensity to be somewhat unedifying. However, while maturity allows one to step back from such obsessiveness, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary influence wielded by schools rugby when you are immersed in it.

The object of my idolatry in PBC Cork was Ken O'Connell. He was a leviathan presence around the school; a big, burly Ireland Schools flanker and the captain and inspiration of the Pres team that landed the 1987 Senior Cup. Ken had charisma to boot and the speeches he gave to a packed yard exhorting the school to get behind the team were legendary.

I was on the junior team at that time and, in the build-up to the Cup competitions, it was customary for the U-15 and U-18 sides to travel together and play double-headers in friendlies against various schools around the country. On a freezing day in December 1986, we travelled to play Newbridge College in Kildare. I sustained my first serious injury when I was tackled claiming a kick-off and broke my collar bone after smashing into the rock-hard ground. Too young to avail of the salve of a few cans which would provide comfort in later years on train journeys home, I was in a sling and considerable pain as the old CIE rattler made its way back to Cork.

As I sat there wallowing in self-pity and fretting furiously on whether I would be fit enough to face St Clement's in the first round of the Junior Cup a few weeks later, I saw Ken making his way down the carriage from the seats where the seniors were celebrating another comprehensive victory.

Unexpectedly, he plonked down next to me and enquired after my injury. I mumbled something about it being "not too bad" and he chatted away about the upcoming Cup competitions for a few minutes before wishing me all the best in my recovery and moving on.

It is customary in secondary school to pour scorn on those in the years below you and for O'Connell to take time out to talk to a young fellah of no consequence cemented his status as one of the greats in my eyes.

Three years later, I had graduated to the senior team and we went as a squad to watch Munster take on the All Blacks at Musgrave Park when O'Connell was the young bolter in the back row. The Munster side were well beaten but Ken put in a phenomenal performance, tormenting New Zealand at every turn until their captain Wayne 'Buck' Shelford was forced to take action and O'Connell was forced off with concussion.

Afterwards in the clubhouse, there was the famous moment when Shelford shook his head in bewilderment as he mused on the game over a pint and enquired: "Who the hell was that crazy flanker?"

O'Connell was part of the Munster set-up when they reached the 2000 Heineken Cup final and during his career was a valued servant of Sunday's Well, London Irish and Castres.

However, he never got the international recognition his abilities deserved. O'Connell was handed his first cap in 1994, but it was for the dreaded trip to Paris, a graveyard for prospective Irish internationals -- as Don Whittle, Paul Hogan and Derek McAleese would testify. Though he played a fair amount of rugby at open side, O'Connell was blatantly a blindside bruiser (in the Stephen Ferris, Denis Leamy mould) but he was picked at seven for that clash with France and, with the home side predictably rampant, never stood a chance -- especially against a backrow of the calibre of Benetton, Benazzi and Cecillon.

Ken came off the bench that season in Ireland's famous victory over England at Twickenham but never again represented his country which, when you consider some of the dubious caps handed out to flankers in the grim '90s, was bizarre.

But then I would say that, because once a hero always a hero. After school, maturity decrees that such worship is no longer permissible (although the rules were nearly broken when Simon Geoghegan broke into the Irish team).

Professionalism has taken much of the traditional spirit from rugby; players tend to be po-faced and driven these days by intense schedules and the necessity to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which precludes any of the shenanigans that were commonplace in the amateur era.

It has filtered down to the schools game also, where the approach is professional in everything but name. Yet, thankfully, there remains an innocence to the schools game as youth invites a natural exuberance, while the terraces are as noisy and as colourful as ever.

And as long as there is schools rugby and impressionable young fellahs, there will be heroes ...

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