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School Of Hard Knocks

School Of Hard Knocks

The new stand at Donnybrook was unveiled prior to the opening game of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup between Belvedere College and Terenure College on Sunday. As the Schools cup season gets into full swing, the Irish Independent’s Tony Ward analyses the competitions in all four provinces.

A little bit of rugby history was created at Donnybrook (remember Lansdowne Road had its ‘Last Stand’ some three months before) on a fairly dank Sunday afternoon last March. It was the day when, due in no small measure to Noel Reid’s trusted right boot, St. Michael’s College came of age.

So often the bridesmaid, finally the bride as nobody could deny the Ailesbury Road school the cup success they had for so long craved. The Dublin 4 college along with PBC (13-3 victors over great Cork rivals CBC) Garbally College, Ballinasloe (25-18 winners over Marist College, Athlone) and RBAI (who overcame Lisburn’s Wallace High School 15-0) topped the pile in the respective provinces. In contrast to the new kings of Leinster, Pres, Garbally and Inst racked up their 27th, 44th and 29th provincial titles respectively.

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As Michael’s know better than any when it comes to winning schools cups, history and tradition matters. To that end it is the big guns making all the early noises this time round, although in Leinster it appears open season with this year’s Powerade competition as unpredictable as it has ever been.

The restructured event embracing McMullan (Section A), Murray (Section B) and Powerade (Section C) senior competitions has seen a steady improvement in the lot of the hitherto mid-ranking schools.

With Kilkenny putting giants Blackrock College to the sword in last year’s quarter-final, they, along with CBC, Gonzaga and Roscrea, have the proven capability and confidence to compete with the big six on a regular basis.


To that add beaten Senior League finalists St. Andrew’s (18-10 losers to CBC) who field the biggest and strongest pack ever to represent the Booterstown school. Take it as read now that the winner of St. Mary’s and Castleknock and Belvedere will each have another mountain to climb.

Whether it is Kilkenny or Gonzaga or the winner of Roscrea and St. Andrew’s, they must front up in their bid for a place in the semi-finals. Put simply, the mid-ranking Section B schools are serious contenders for this year’s main prize, none more so than CBC. If you want a punt from a distance look no further than the Monkstown school, given the make-up of the draw and their position in the bottom half.

But for the first time in many years predicting any one of the four semi-finalists with any degree of certainty is fraught with danger. So in terms of putting head on the block, what about a last eight of Rock v Clongowes, Belvo v Andrew’s, Mary’s (if they can get it right at half-back, a serious dark horse) v Gonzaga and defending champions Michael’s v CBC.

Mind you, me thinks Terenure, Roscrea, Pres Bray, Castleknock, King’s Hospital and Kilkenny will have something to say about that. I wouldn’t bet against any one or more of these making it through to the quarter-finals. Seldom has the senior competition been more evenly set up or delicately balanced.


In Munster, with less than half the number of schools competing it’s relatively easier but equally daunting picking an outright winner. Pres cleaned up a year ago taking not just the Senior crown but the Avonmore Junior, Barry Cup (Senior Seconds) and Kidney Cup (Junior Seconds) as well.

Needless to say they are hotly fancied this time again despite drawing Limerick’s number one, St. Munchin’s in the opening round. With home city advantage they will start out as favourites, leaving the winner set for a another tilt at the title.

Realistically, with Pres and Christians (CBC) at opposite ends of the draw it looks like a repeat of last year’s all-Cork final. Midleton and Glenstal kick it all off with the winner facing Crescent in the quarter-final. Christians, like Pres, face formidable Limerick opposition in the guise of Ard Scoil and will have their work cut out in making it through to the last four where Crescent will be favoured to make up the opposition.

Rockwell/Castletroy has the shape of an either/or but Pres against the Tipperary School and Christians v Crescent looks the most likely. Either way it’s a brave man who will predict the finalists with any degree of confidence.


In Connacht, reigning champions Garbally will begin the defence of their crown when they take on the winners of Tuam VS and Athenry. Beaten finalists last year, the developing Marist College, Athlone have already announced their Cup intent despite losing out to Colaiste Iognaid (17-8) in the Senior League final.

The Jes appear well placed for an assault on the double with Calasanctius College and either Sligo Grammar or near neighbours Summerhill between the Galway school and a place in the March 5 final from the upper half.

Down below it’s a little more intricate with Garbally and Marist College the favoured two although Gallen, The Bish (St Joseph’s College), Clifden and St Mary’s, Ballygar have been making ripples this season. With little confidence, take a repeat of the league final the most likely outcome but with Garbally the clear and most obvious threat. Don’t rule out a successful title defence.


In Ulster the nature of the rolling draw makes any sort of prediction with conviction even more difficult again. Schools rugby in Ulster is particularly strong right now with no fewer than ten of the 26 man Ireland Under-18 training squad from the northern province. More to the point it is spread between eight schools with just two – Methody (Methodist College Belfast) and Coleraine Academical Institute – providing two apiece.

The picture north of the border tends to become a lot clearer by mid-January and this season certainly will be no different in that regard. All told it makes for another fascinating season of top quality competitive schools’ fare.

For those unfamiliar with what it is at the root of the Ross O’Carroll Kelly phenomenon, I suggest a visit to any provincial cup game in the coming weeks. Schools rugby represents the bedrock of the game in this country. Miss it at your peril.

– This article appeared in ‘In Touch’, the official IRFU magazine in association with O2, published free with the Irish Independent on Monday