Two seasons ago, Blackrock College were preparing for another year in Men’s Division 2B. Fast forward two years and they are about to begin life in Division 1B of the Energia All-Ireland League after securing back-to-back promotions.
It has been a successful period for the south Dublin club. They pushed Queen’s University all the way in 2022/23, with the students needing a win on the last day of the season to secure automatic promotion, two points clear of the closest challengers.
Blackrock made sure of their own promotion with victories over both Nenagh Ormond and MU Barnhall during the play-offs in April and May.
Blackrock’s assistant coach Stan McDowell believes that ultra-competitive battle with Queen’s helped to push them on.
“It became a battle between ourselves and Queen’s for automatic promotion,” he told IrishRugby.ie. “We both finished the regular season with four losses and one draw, and a win apiece each against each other. Fantastic games.
“We became very good at digging out wins where Queen’s were sort of winning comfortably throughout the season. We were grabbing wins from the jaws of defeat.
“I look back to a game where we hosted Navan before Christmas. After 50 minutes, we were 25-0 down, conceding fives tries. We ended up winning the game 26-25. You kind of think, and I’m sure Navan did at the time, how did we win that game?
“That sort of summed up our season to a degree. We were able to dig deep and find ways of winning when it probably looked like for parts in games that it didn’t look like we were going to.”
Things could have been very different for them. Blackrock won the Division 2B title at the end of the 2021/22 season, beating Greystones at Dr Hickey Park 25-23 in the final after an inspired last quarter.
Matthew Dwan’s try in the last play of the game sealed them a dramatic triumph in a year where only one team gained promotion due to a unique scenario brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
McDowell agrees that it was a milestone moment for the group. He praised the likes of Dwan, Matthew Cosgrave, and James Fennelly, amongst others. He also said recruitment has been key to their success in recent times.
I suppose what we’ve done really well, (head coach) James Blaney, and Mick Hearty, our director of rugby, would take a lot of credit for this in that pre-Covid era.
“Our recruitment had done a couple of things. We got a lot of key players from out west, the likes of Colm Gallagher, Ciaran Cassidy, Mark Edwards, Liam McMahon and Matt Cosgrave who were coming to the east coast for various reasons with work.
“Through our director of rugby and head coach, they planted themselves here at Blackrock College. They came from areas where they were use to digging deep at key moments. That all fed into the driving confidence heading into 2A.”
Last summer, they enlisted more new players to try and help their cause in the league’s third tier. Hooker Niall Hardiman, Cian Reale, and Roy Whelan all played a pivotal role across the course of the campaign.
Heading into the league, the confidence was high within the squad, the roll-on effect from the previous season mixed with the introduction of fresh faces gave them a belief that they could potentially have repeat success.
McDowell explained: “In September, we looked at what we were able to do from a recruitment point of view, and we were very excited by the quality of personnel we were able to bring in.
“We felt confident that we were able to set a realistic target of putting ourselves in a position for promotion. I suppose our target was to make sure we did enough to get ourselves into the play-offs.
“We looked at ourselves at the end of each block of fixtures and made adjustments to build confidence and set ourselves for the next block. We took it one game at a time. We had done well with recruitment.
“We felt that if we got the integration of those new players into the squad that we already had and to get everybody singing of the same hymn sheet as to what we were trying to do on the field in terms of attack and defence, we would be good enough to give ourselves a chance of promotion, or a chance of promotion through the playoffs.
“It was a target for us right from the start, there was no doubt about that.”
Getting back in the realm of the top two divisions of the Energia All-Ireland League provides many benefits for clubs. They have the power to attract some of the brightest young talents across the country.
Historically, there has always been a great link between Blackrock College, the club, and Blackrock College, the school, with many students deciding to start their senior rugby careers at Stradbrook.
In recent times, however, they have not had the same appeal due to playing in the lower divisions. McDowell is hopeful that this trend might change now that they find themselves playing in Division 1B again.
“It’s been a lean period of time for Blackrock, and through those lean years of not being in the first division the knock-on effect has been the lack of interest in guys that have left the school and probably would have looked to come here.
“There’s always going to be a strong draw to go to UCD or Trinity, with college and scholarships, but we would have always done pretty well from guys that we were coming out of the school, whether they were looking to go into the sub-Academy or whatever.
“Being back in that arena again, where the door is open once more, I think we’ll find that there will be that desire for people to come here again,” said the former Ireland Sevens Development coach, who won the European Cup with his native Ulster back in 1999.
Blackrock have had to make journeys all around the country in recent years, but being back in Division 1B will give them the opportunity to play in some places closer to home, with Dublin derbies to come against Old Belvedere, Old Wesley and St. Mary’s College. These games rarely fail to entertain, so it is an exciting prospect.
A third promotion in a row would be a dream, but it is another very tough challenge, and one that Blackrock certainly do not underestimate.
They know if they can get recruitment right again and play to the level they have been playing at over the last number of seasons, anything is possible. McDowell added:
Once we’ve concluded our recruitment and sit down and look at the squad of players that we’ve got, and now that we’ve got the fixture list, we can start planning for the season ahead.
“We’ll not look beyond UCC on October 7. We’ll take things in those blocks of three and at the end of each block we’ll look at where we are at and what we can do better to help our situation and help results.
“We’ll absolutely been planning for success. Success for us is putting ourselves within a shot of it.”
– Photos from John Crothers Sports Photography and Inpho Photography