The UCC Under-20 squad have just completed a remarkable season in the university club’s long and rich history. During the 2006/07 campaign the Conor Twomey-coached side have been crowned All-Ireland champions, South Western Conference League champions, Munster Cup champions and Intervarsity champions.
What do Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Jerry Flannery, Mick O’Driscoll, Denis Leamy, Leinster’s Stephen Keogh and Leicester’s Frank Murphy all have in common, apart from their Munster lineage?
Answer is they have all won an All-Ireland Under-20 championship with UCC RFC. In 1996, the first year of this prestigious U-20 national competition, otherwise known as the Fraser McMullen trophy, UCC won it with O’Gara, Stringer, Flannery and O’Driscoll on board, bringing the first ever U-20 national title south.
The loss to Bruff left many players with a sense of unfinished business and the following year (2002), the college side, again featuring most of the 2001 team, reached the national final where they faced Bruff in a repeat of the previous year’s decider. This time around, UCC proved too strong for the Limerick side and secured their second All-Ireland title.
In 2003 and 2005, the Cork side bowed out at quarter-final and semi-final stages respectively – Trinity College won both titles in 2003 and 2005. UCC won a third title in the interim when the 2004 vintage swept all comers aside and beat Belfast Harlequins 36-13 in Dublin and brought ‘Fraser’ back to UCC and Munster.
The 2004 champions featured some of the up-and-coming Munster players of today with the likes of Tim Ryan, Donnacha Ryan, Ross Noonan and full-back Denis Hurley all seeing Magners League action in the past two seasons.
Last season UCC went out to a strong Trinity side in the semis. The Dublin students eventually lost out to Shannon in the final – Shannon winning their first U-20 All Ireland.
And so to the 2006/2007 season. UCC ran a strong recruitment campaign at U-20 level in the off season and when last season’s U-20s were added to this year’s high calibre of fresher intake, the side not only had strength but that crucial ingredient in successful campaigns – strength in depth in all positions.
Competition for places was reflected in the intensity of training, commitment to gym work and additional fitness and skills work done by not only the Academy members but most all U-20s in the club. Internal competition and high standards set and maintained by the players set the tone from the start.
The goals for the season were ambitious but simple – to win all competitions. A number of these U-20s were drafted into the senior training panel and immediately impressed. UCC’s AIB League Division Two senior team regularly featured up to seven U-20s – making it by far the youngest team of any competing in the league. In their second last match of the league campaign against Young Munster last month, UCC’s senior team featured ten U-20 players. One of the attractions of playing for ‘College is that the better U-20s could expect to play senior rugby at All-Ireland League level in year one or two.
The Academy programme, now in its sixth year, ensures that these players are physically, technically and tactically prepared for life in senior rugby. Many of these players go on to play for Ireland at Under-19 and Under-20 level as well as for the Irish Universities team. Fifteen UCC Sports Scholarships were awarded to rugby this year, including two to the very first lady members of the Academy who both play for Munster. These Sports Scholars operate under the UCC Rugby Academy structures.
In addition, nine UCC players are current members of the Munster Academy. This season, the Mardyke side had three Munster players in Darragh Hurley (Munster Rugby’s Young Player of The Year), Jeremy Manning and Portuguese international Diogo Mateus. Munster and Ireland utility back John Kelly was ‘College’s senior backs coach this season.
A typical in-season weekly schedule for these UCC players would see them complete two/three 80-minute supervised weights sessions, a combined speed and skills session, two/three team training sessions, weekly lineout or kicking sessions, a Saturday game and their own pool recovery session on Sunday or Monday. There is a strong emphasis on nutrition and recovery strategies including ice baths post-training and games, as well as very specific nutrition plans for game day in terms of content, frequency and timing of meals and hydration.
The Academy programme is open to all Under-20s, who are encouraged to take up the programme even if they are not on the Academy or Sports Scholarship pay scales. The programme is supported by specialists in strength and conditioning, speed, exercise physiology, nutrition and medical. Players attend a number of education modules on these areas, covering topics such as principles of training and lifestyle, nutrition, anti-doping and recovery strategies. Each topic is supported with booklets. The principles and theory are reinforced at training and in gym.
The first of this season’s four pieces of silverware for UCC’s U-20s was won back in October when the Cork side beat Trinity, UCG and UL Bohemians comprehensively to win the U-20 Intervarsity Conroy Cup – an annual weekend-long competition that was hosted this year by UCC.
A-13 game league campaign resulted in the Cork students finishing top of their provincial league and in the process automatically qualifying for a home quarter-final place in the U-20 All-Ireland against Ulster’s number two team, Queen’s University.
Winning the league title meant that the Cork students avoided the play-offs, which complete the three teams from Munster/Connacht who then join Leinster’s three best and Ulster’s top two in the All-Ireland quarter finals.
In mid March, a Munster U-20 Cup title – UCC’s fifth in a row – saw trophy number three added. When the All-Ireland quarter-finals came around in late March a 34-7 win over Queen’s meant that UCC would face UL Bohemians in the All Ireland semis in Limerick (Blackrock beat Lansdowne in the other semi). A 34-16 win over Bohs meant that it would be a Munster v Leinster final – UCC v Blackrock.
Powerful forward play, smart tactical kicking with a first half wind, a dominant set piece, well-marshalled defending and a season-long indominitable spirit saw UCC win 34-21 in a cracking final, played in Nenagh last month. Six of UCC’s seven replacements played a significant part in the last twenty minutes of the game, reflecting ‘College’s strength in depth.
A further ten squad players were there to add vocal support for the team and many of the senior squad travelled in support. ‘College’s fourth title win completed an unprecedented U-20 Grand Slam for the Don Keogh-captained side with 34 points being scored in each of the quarters, semis and final respectively.
UCC’s fourth national U-20 title, and third in six years, was won by playing a brand of rugby close to the hearts of all the players.
Congratulations from IrishRugby.ie to the UCC U-20 players, coaches and staff for an excellent campaign, which saw the side play 24 games and lose only once throughout the entire season.
UCC Under-20 Squad: Courtney Canning, Roibeard Wilmot, Stephen Archer (Ireland U-19), Ronan O’Neill, Neville O’Donoghue, Wayne Falvey, Dave Nathan, Eamonn Nugent (Forward of the Year), Neilus Keogh (Ireland U-20), Richie McCarthy, Peter Murphy, Conor Harbison, Barry O’Mahony (Irish Universities), Robbie Allen, Cillian O’Neill, Shane O’Sullivan (Player of the Year), Kieran Essex (Ireland U-19), Don Keogh (Capt), Joe Crowley, Sam Cronin (Irish Universities), Eoghan Kennedy, Dearan McGrath, Ronan O’Sullivan (Back of the Year/Vice-Capt), Gavin Dunne, Peter Brougham, Brian Dennehy, Ivan Dineen, Will Hanly, Tim Kenneally, Colin Crowley (Most Improved Player of the Year), Jeff Power, Gavin Blower, Darragh R Hurley, Keith Buckley, Rory Love, Peter O’Sullivan.
Training Squad: Colin O’Brien, Darren Frahill, Liam Melia, Brian Donnelly, Richard Milner, Richard Owens, Tom O’Donnell, Matt Kearney, Daniel O’Brien, Julian Hayes, Conor O’Flaherty.
Coaches: Conor Twomey (Head), Bryan Hyland (Forwards), Gary Byrne (Backs)
Assistants: Barry O’Neill (Backs), Ultan O’Callaghan (Forwards)
Manager: Tony Castro
Physios: Jill Withall, Dave Angland
Medical Team: Dr. Adrian Murphy, Dr. Len Harty
Fitness Team: Paudie Roche (Strength and Conditioning), Colin Murphy (Speed and Fitness)
Backroom Staff: Dr. Tom Hill (Nutrition), Trevor Woods (Fitness Testing and Recovery)