The arrival of the Old Boys of Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt Co. Derry into Division Three of the AIB League a few weeks ago reminded us once more of the debt owed by the clubs of Ireland to the rugby playing schools of the land.
Since rugby was introduced into Ireland more than 150 years ago, players, on leaving rugby schools, have tended to band together and form old boys clubs named after the schools they attended. There are ten such clubs currently among the 48 clubs in the AIB League - Blackrock College, Terenure College, St. Mary's College, Old Belvedere, Old Crescent, Old Wesley, Instonians, De La Salle Palmerston, Rainey Old Boys and Waterpark.
Other schools are fed by schools in their immediate locality for example, Methodist College Belfast serves Belfast Harlequins, Ballymena Academy serves Ballymena, Royal School Dungannon supplies Dungannon, Portadown College supplies Portadown and Regent House Newtownards supplies Ards.
In time, most former pupils clubs opened up to outsiders but a few resisted the temptation. Old Belvedere or 'The Lodge', as they were known in rugby circles, were the last Leinster senior club to go 'open.' Tom McGuirk (schooled at St. Patrick's, Armagh), of RTI rugby fame, claims to be the first 'blow-in' to play for the Old Belvedere club back in 1975.
Last season, their 75th, Old Belvedere installed their first president who had not attended Belvedere College and this season have appointed a Scotsman as club captain. Instonians, for so long the membership preserve of former pupils of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, were the last Irish senior club to open their doors. This they did in 1990 just before the club participated in the first ever All-Ireland League.
For many decades, most schools rugby players gravitated towards their former pupils' clubs if there was one. In the early 1970s, UCD had a talented pair of half-backs - both capped by Leinster - in Conor Sparks and Declan 'Biller' Molloy. Conor was a past pupil of Terenure College and Declan of Belvedere College. On graduation from UCD, they decided to break the mould and both joined the Blackrock club where they saw out the rest of their playing careers. Molloy, in fact, was honoured with the presidency of Blackrock a few seasons ago.
Some players, especially those who spent time at UCD or Trinity College, now started moving in all directions. The old school ties were unknotted and allegiances to their rugby nurseries went out the door. Bobby Byrne, the former Ireland Schools coach and recent Leinster assistant coach, stood out in this regard. Educated at Terenure College, Bobby played senior prop with UCD, after five seasons moved back to his old boys club and then surprise, surprise transferred to the old enemy, Blackrock College, for a few 'mature' seasons. Not only did the popular RM Byrne play first team rugby for three Leinster senior clubs but he was also elected captain of all three of them.
All of which brings us to the first of the old boys clashes in the AIB League this season - Saturday's Division One match at Stradbrook between Blackrock College and Terenure College - two old boys clubs that still actually carry the school name in the club title and proud both of them are to do so.
A perusal of the teams which have started league games for these two clubs over the past few weeks would indicate that as many as nine of the Blackrock side and twelve of the Terenure line-up are products of their respective alma maters.
...Kevin West who has coached both Blackrock College and Terenure College in the AIB League...
Moreover, this season's president, senior vice-president, honorary secretary and honorary treasurer of each club are all former pupils of the associated school. Blackrock's joint coaches, Barry Gibney and Emmet Farrell, enjoyed schools fame with Blackrock College and both have since played for the club and been capped by Leinster and Ireland 'A' respectively.
Kevin West, who coached for five seasons at Blackrock and is now head coach at Terenure, is the odd man out in all of this as he is an import from New Zealand but James Blaney, his assistant, is an out-and-out 'Purple, Black and White' stalwart.
Off the field, the pre-match luncheon on Saturday is already booked out. Former players from each school will share tables and reminisce about old injuries and schools games of the past. Not much has really changed at all over a century and a half...and why should it?!!
- With thanks to Irish Rugby Statistician Des Daly -