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Only In God: Balls.ie Experiences The Splendour Of Schools Cup Rugby

Only In God: Balls.ie Experiences The Splendour Of Schools Cup Rugby
By Conor Neville Updated

 

On an otherwise inconspicuous Tuesday evening last year, I bumped into a friend of mine and his inebriated cousin.

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The cousin was an alumnus of Cistercian College in Roscrea and it was two days since his old school had finally won the Leinster Senior Cup for the first time, beating Belvo in the final.

He hadn't stopped drinking since the final. Two solid days.

He had played on the 2009 Roscrea team who were beaten by Blackrock in the final, in the year he did his leaving cert.

He spent the night in a stupor of satisfaction, bathing in the afterglow of the victory. It was impossible to steer the conversation on to any topic other than Roscrea's glorious victory and what it meant to him and the school.

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Had Ireland won the World Cup, he could hardly have celebrated it more.

This was a bit of a revelation to me. Not least because I had always thought Roscrea was in Tipperary. It transpires that the grounds of the college are located a couple of miles inside the Offaly border. They have thus forsaken the relatively low-profile Munster Schools Cup and seized the opportunity to have a tilt at Blackrock and co. in the infinitely sexier Leinster Schools Cup.

Roscrea, as exotic a reigning champion as this competition has ever seen, are in the final again this year, having beaten Clongowes in a humdinger this past Tuesday.

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Today, last year's runners-up Belvedere played St. Michael's in the other semi-final. I showed up, took up a position on the Bective End terrace,  and trained my eyes on everything around me in the manner of a cultural anthropologist

I was told there were celebrities about. Cian Healy was mentioned. I didn't happen upon him but thankfully, even more glamorous figures came into view.

Conor Lenihan breezed past us shortly before kick-off, acknowledging the hello of the middle-aged man standing to my left.

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'Never liked him', he said jokingly.

'Do Lenihan's kids go to Belvedere?' I asked.

'No, he's just an ex-student himself. As are all his family.' Like Lenihan, this man was an ex-Belvedere student. His kids are currently students in Michael's. He presumed they were seated among decked out Michael's students at the far end of the stand.

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Who would he be supporting so?

He paused briefly and said, 'probably Belvedere.' The loyalty to the alma mater is incredibly strong in rugby country.

In an era when the professional game in the Northern hemisphere is dominated by Basteraud-style blunderbusses and freight trains who specialise in simply bashing into the opposition defence time after time, Setanta's coverage of the Schools Cup has allowed people to catch a glimpse of the naively entertaining rugby played at this level.

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The two sides were recklessly creative in their approach. Both embraced running rugby as if it were enshrined in the Schools Cup constitution. Belvo, fresh off a pulsating win over Blackrock in a game some called the greatest ever played, dominated the first half and the early portion of the second half, building up a seemingly unassailable 22-3 lead.

However, Michael's launched a stunning comeback, one which they kept undermining by throwing ridiculous interceptions as soon as they got within one score of the lead. They gifted two tries this way, one to James McKeown, who completed his hat-trick with a leisurely stroll under the posts. Michael's absolute determination to play cavalier rugby cost them dearly.

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The Stand was filled with a phalanx of jersey-wearing students from both sides. Heading into the game as favourites, the Belvo boys were far more bullish in their chanting. Crucially, one of their number had the foresight to bring a megaphone to the game.

The two sets of teenaged supporters were segregated and separated from each other by a well-positioned army of parents, who occupied the middle section of the stand around the halfway line.

The far side of the ground, the side visible to the TV cameras, was the most demographically mixed area, being comprised, I was told, of recently departed students now attending university, girls from the neighbouring Mount Sackville school, and assorted middle-aged fans.

Incidentally, this segment in the crowd had no time for Thomond Park pieties about remaining quiet for the kicker. On the stroke of halftime, as Michael's outhalf Harry Byrne stood poised over a penalty, the crowd jeered and 'waaaahaaaayed' and then ironically called for 'a bit of hush' when the noise briefly quietened.

The kick slid wide.

Trev, a Belvedere supporter in my vicinity, turned around and said 'there'll be war over that', meaning the Belvedere principal would take a dim view and likely read the riot act. Even though no current students were involved, they'd be the ones receiving an earful over it.

My area was definitely the most advanced in age. It was well stocked with bespectacled, grey-haired men in long coats who no doubt have tales to tell about seeing Mike Gibson play. If the old Lansdowne Road had a schoolboys enclosure for international games, then Donnybrook has a geriatrics pen for Schools Cup games.

Obscure reference alert: one man, who still wore a massive black and white Belvedere College scarf, was a ringer for the English Conservative MP Ken Clarke. They still used the collective pronoun 'we' when referring to Belvo.

At the game's end, the Belvedere firm, who had earlier serenaded us with chants like 'Michael's is a girls school' and 'I believe that we will win' (a quaint and rather innocent effort made popular by the team USA supporters at the 2014 World Cup) belted out a portentous-sounding hymn containing the lyrics 'My stronghold, my saviour'.

As if directed by Jurgen Klopp, the triumphant Belvederians marched arm and arm down to their fellow pupils in the Stand and hollered out the same song with the intensity of a Welsh male choir.

A lady wearing a rosette bearing the words 'Belvedere College SJ' - she was a teacher at the school - confirmed to me the song was called 'Only in God'.

'It's the only time Belvederians pray, during rugby matches', she told me.

I got chatting to Vinny, a computer software engineer and ex-Belvedere student. Was it the intense nature of interschool rivalry that kept past pupils coming back to the Schools Cup games? What was it?

It's the quality of the rugby and the camaraderie of the meeting up with your mates from school. I don't know if the rivalry among schools that big a factor once lads have left. There would be a bit of banter among guys who went to different schools but I don't know would it be that intense.

Rugby is, of course, primarily a schools game in Ireland and the profile of the competition has only gotten bigger in recent years. Hardcore rugby fans still appear to be besotted with the romance of the Schools Cup.

In other sports, the primacy of clubs draws attention away from schools competitions. Perhaps, the comparably low profile of the Munster Schools Cup (still a big competition) is attributable to the historical strength of the club game in Limerick and Munster.

As the crowd filed out, one man raised an ironic cheer with the cry of 'Up the Northside!'

Read more: TV3 And RTÉ Announce The Irish TV Schedule For Euro 2016 Games

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