On Sunday, in Donnybrook, Terenure take on Clongowes in the Leinster Schools Cup, while, in Musgrave Park, PBC and CBC renew an ancient rivalry that will draw the punters out in their thousands.
If you’re lucky enough to line out in these games it stays with you forever. You may play and forget a thousand club games but each kick, pass and try of your schools cup career is burnt into the memory banks.
Rugby is famous for its old boys network. Private school leads to NUI university which in turn leads to a secure job as a lawyer, doctor or businessman with the school tie frequently brought along for the ride.
But times are changing.
Since the game went professional, rugby is suddenly a career in its own right. The high profile of our provincial and international players wins over impressionable minds and when career paths are being chosen, ‘professional rugby player’ is now in the melting pot.
A dangerous development.
For every Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll, you have a Conor McGuinness and Ciaran Scally. Players with superb schools careers thinking they had a bright future in the game, only to see it cut short by injury. Both those players had enough academic clout to forge alternative careers but others are not so fortunate.
The danger comes from students thinking they are good enough to make it as a pro and neglecting their studies. When they leave the cosy school environment and find they are not up to it, or suffer serious injury, they are suddenly scrabbling for a foothold on the increasingly crowded jobs ladder.
Charlie Buckley, president of UCC RFC, has strong views on the subject. “Traditionally, Pres and Christians have been the feeder schools for UCC. Back in the late 1990s, we were looking at setting up the UCC rugby academy to develop promising players but we ran into some major problems.
“Munster had 13 players in the Irish schools squad that toured and beat Australia and we were hoping to get a good chunk of those.
“However, only one of those 13 got the points needed to go to UCC and that set the alarm bells ringing. We took the decision to invite certain players in the Cork Institute of Technology, who had a lower points entry, to come and play for UCC.”
With Leaving Cert points for promising schools players falling, Buckley believes the focus falls on the schools. “Winning cups is obviously great profile for a school and the guys on the team are treated like heroes. I think some of them think ‘I don’t have to study because rugby will give me a living’. But the reality is only a fraction of them actually make it.”
The desire to win senior cups has seen some schools embark on aggressive recruitment policies. Promising kids are spotted early and the fact that the schools tend to be fee-paying means inducements are not hard to find. Traditionally, coaching at schools level has been done by teachers or parents, but in recent times expert, outside help has been brought in.
Former Ireland coach Murray Kidd was drafted into the CBC set-up and it is unlikely a professional coach like him was doing it out of a love of the game.
If you are brought in to win a cup, the Leaving Cert takes a back seat and there is a story doing the rounds about a schools coach telling his players “not to study for more than one hour a night because it affects your concentration on the pitch”.
Parents also have an important role here. Most fathers dream of their sons wearing the green of Ireland but it is important to instil a degree of realism into the equation and encourage their boy to hit the books while pursuing his sporting goals.
Buckley says the UCC academy is very aware of the pitfalls. “Getting your degree is the over-riding principle,” he says. “We call the players in every two or three weeks to see how their studies are going. If someone falls behind we tell them to take a few weeks off rugby.”
The Schools cups represent one of the most colourful and vibrant traditions in the game. Those lucky enough to have schools cup medals should treasure them.
Let’s hope the next generation don’t have to pawn theirs.