For me, he not only instilled a great love of the game but also the commitment and dedication required to maximise whatever talent I had.
Brother Philip O’Reilly, or ‘Rabble’ as he was affectionately known, was an exceptional man and a visionary in a sport he only became involved in by accident through his teaching role with the Christian Brothers.
Although he arrived in CBC Cork in 1957, he did not assume control of the senior side until 1969. The rest, as they say, is history and a return of eight Munster Schools Senior Cups in 10 years became the stuff of legend in Cork’s famed rugby nursery. A four in a row between 1971 and 1974 was followed by back-to-back successes in 1976 and 1977, a feat repeated in 1979 and 1980.
Those squads were populated by outstanding young rugby talents, many of whom went on to play for Munster, Leinster, Ireland and the Lions. Of even greater significance was the large number of players who graced club rugby at all levels well into their 30s, imbued with a love and passion for the game that had been nurtured by Br O’Reilly from an early age.
A survey carried out a few seasons ago revealed a worrying trend that up to 75% of players who participated in senior cup rugby give up the game entirely within three years of leaving school. In my opinion, much of this is down to the intensity that players encounter in the schools game nowadays, with coaches attempting to replicate the preparation and workload that professional players undertake in the modern game. Much of the enjoyment seems to be going out of the sport at that level. For those of us fortunate to play under Br O’Reilly, the opposite was the case.
Writing in the match programme for a match organised to mark the centenary of the school back in 1988, Br O’Reilly commented: “My happiest days as a coach in CBC were with the underage teams whose unbounded enthusiasm and youthful exuberance were a constant incentive to myself. Rugby is really a very simple game and it should remain so by concentrating on doing the simple things extremely well.
“The basic skills of handling and running with the ball are essential. I am of the opinion that damage has been done to the game by introducing competitive football at too young an age. There is an overemphasis on winning at a time when children are incapable of absorbing the pressures of cup rugby. Good 15-man rugby will develop successfully when boys can enjoy their game and when the consequences of their mistakes will not bring them harmful criticism.”
I was fortunate to be part of those successful senior cup winning sides in 1976 and 1977 but came under his influence from the day I arrived in CBC from St Patrick’s National School in 1971. It was my good fortune he was not only my class master but also our games master in first year on sports day. At our first rugby training session, he said “I want you to play lock.” Having only experienced Gaelic football, hurling and soccer to that point, I had no idea what that meant.
By the time I left six years later, I was fortunate to do so without ever losing a schools cup match at junior or senior level and with a decent haul of medals in my pocket. However, in pure rugby terms, I had so much more. Rabble gave me a grounding and understanding of the game that stood to me throughout my career. He also nurtured and encouraged whatever leadership qualities he had identified in me.
He was more of a man manager than a technician and was never afraid to involve others with more specific expertise, with the late Bob Casey and Con O’Leary a key part of his brains trust.
In so many areas he was well ahead of his time.
The only time I ever went through a pre-match run out in the hour before a game was with the CBC senior team on Munster Senior Cup days, when he would put us through our paces on the GAA pitch in Deerpark CBS, just a few minutes away from Musgrave Park. We would then arrive by coach at the match venue, togged off, warmed up and ready for battle. It was the same routine when we played the Limerick schools in Thomond Park. It was well into the 1990s before that became the norm in the game.
He became more than just a rugby coach to everyone and the warmth and affection in which he was held by the players stayed with all he came in contact with. That was so evident a few years ago as he travelled down from Kilkenny for a reunion of that 1977 side. Through the 1980s, he was very supportive of me and every time I checked into the Shelbourne Hotel on the Thursday before an international at Lansdowne Road, there was a letter waiting at reception for me.
He was always so positive in those communications and passed on his thoughts on the recent and upcoming game along with his good wishes to me and any of the players on the Irish side whom he had come in contact with in his role with Munster and Ireland Schools over the years. Even the PBC lads got special mention.
His departure from CBC in 1981, when he was transferred to Limerick as Director of Vocations, came as a great shock to all. It was even suggested at the time that his prowess and notoriety as a rugby coach was beginning to annoy those in authority within the Christian Brothers. His departure must have been a great personal wrench at the time, yet he never let it be known and accepted it as part of his vocation. His loss to CBC was immeasurable.
Looking back on his contribution to the sport in that 1988 article, Br O’Reilly commented “I realised that to participate in team sports could have a profound influence on the whole educational development of youth. From an early age habits of discipline, regularity, punctuality and loyalty are inculcated and there is no better team game for character building in young boys than rugby.”
What did he see as his best legacy? “The most valuable contribution I made to rugby was helping players to believe in themselves and their ability”. How right he was.
Sadly his health deteriorated in recent years and his passing prompted many a story and recollection from those fortunate to have crossed his path. My sincere condolences go to his family and relatives.