With the rise of the St Fintans in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, James Carroll asks is rugby an elitist sport?
Schools rugby has rolled back into town this week for the 130th edition of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. Hopes and dreams are realised every year by 23 schoolboys on March 18, when the final is played at the home of Leinster Rugby at The RDS.
However, many do not make it past the first game and all the hard work of training during the year can be gruelling as they prepare for ‘the Cup’. Training begins as early as July to be one of the 23 selected to represent their school in the 5,000-strong Donnybrook stadium.
It was Blackrock College who celebrated the first win way back in 1887. ‘Rock also boast the record number of wins with 68 victories. Belvedere College are in second place with 11 victories and they are followed in third by Clongowes Wood College and Castleknock College on eight victories.
The only non-fee paying school to ever win the competition is De La Salle Churchtown, who have won the cup on two occasions in 1983 and 1985 respectively.
Many would hold the view that ‘Leinster Schools Senior Cup’ is elitist. Simply put, some feel that attending institutions such as Belvedere College or ‘Rock is a surefire way to become a professional rugby player.
In the last 10 years, seven schools have featured in the final. Five of those have been victorious – Blackrock(3), Belvedere(2), St. Michael’s College(2),Clongowes Wood College(2) and Cistercian Roscrea(1). Terenure College and St Mary’s College were the respected runners up in finals and have not been back since.
This also seems to feed into the suggestion that rugby in Ireland is elitist. These schools are all fee-paying in addition to the fact that in the last 10 years you can count on one hand the number of different schools who have won the competition.
However, yesterday at Donnybrook seemed to suggest that plenty of work is going on outside of the famous rugby schools. St Finian’s College of Sutton, in their first ever appearance in the first round proper of ‘the Cup’, came agonisingly close to defeating Clongowes Wood College in a cracking game of pace and skill.
Fintan’s started offering rugby to their students 15 years ago, with their first ever senior match only taking place a decade ago.
“Everyone caught wind of them when they were in first year. They were just destroying everybody.”
A St Fintan’s past pupil praised their manager Robert Forbes. “He is our manager since we won the development cup six years ago and ever since we have been progressing.”
“We have a gym and we are progressing massively … we are passionate school, we are getting first years in; second years in, everybody,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot more of Fintans.”
Fintan’s were leading Clongowes 17-3 at half time, to the surprise of many spectators. Clongowes upped their intensity throughout the second half and were also helped by two yellow cards given to Fintan’s which resulted in a red card close to the final whistle as they were desperately trying to stop Clongowes from regaining the lead with only five minutes remaining.
The Kildare side hauled themselves in front with two minutes remaining, only for Fintan’s to be awarded a penalty kick within kicking distance and had the chance to snatch a famous last gasp victory.
Time was up, but unfortunately their outhalf’s penalty effort fell agonisingly short of the posts and ensured a lucky escape for Clongowes.
“Everybody caught wind of them when they were in first year. They were just destroying everybody. They are the first team from the school to make it into the Senior Cup. St Fintan’s is usually associated with Gaelic and Basketball,” said another past pupil.
Leinster Rugby along with the other three provinces only turned professional in 1995. Rugby historically is, and always will be to a certain extent an elitist sport but the province has been doing a lot to promote the game outside of the schools system and this is slowly reaping rewards.
Two Irish internationals, Tadhg Furlong (Wexford) and Sean O’Brien (Carlow) did not compete in the schools cup or play rugby in school. Adam Byrne, who has had a breakthrough year at the province honed his skills at Naas R.F.C..
Peter Dooley and Tom Daly are others in the squad who have come from outside the school system.
Coupled with them, Leinster have made it less elitist to support the team. Their marketing appeals to the 12 county army and pre-season is now being held all over the province to gain new fans and players from counties. This can only be a positive thing.
Professionalism has been in place for 22 years. In reality that is a really small amount of time and rugby as we know it, is only in its infancy in Ireland. Barriers are slowly being broken down to get more schools with no history of playing the game. Highlighted by Fintan’s magnificent performance yesterday. Do not be surprised in 20 years time that we have many more non-fee paying schools competing competitively and supplying talent to Ireland at various age levels.