Underdogs dreaming of more glory

IT’S a result that’s still resonating around Leinster Schools rugby — Kilkenny College’s shock 14-13 victory over 65 times champions Blackrock College in their quarter-final replay at Donnybrook on Monday.

Kilkenny, 80 to 1 outsiders, could have had it snatched from them had Blackrock converted a penalty 12 minutes into injury time. When the final whistle went, it marked the biggest result in the college’s and, some say, competition’s 120 year history.

Kilkenny College is one the oldest rugby playing schools in the country.

Past pupils include former Irish internationals like Ernie Ridgeway, Bill Hector and Alan Doherty, but their 2007 Cup narrative has taken on fairytale status. Their place in a competition dominated for decades by the elite fee-paying Dublin schools lends their story in the greater scheme of things a more fascinating colour. And having rugby flourish in Hurling Central is another wonderful subplot.

While no GAA exists on campus, Kilkenny College is conscious of the county’s proud hurling pedigree. Founded in 1538, the 800-pupil school sits off Castlecomer Road in the city. Under Church of Ireland management, it’s also the largest co-educational boarding secondary school in Ireland, with 500 pupils. Their rugby playing pool of 210 is small in comparison to the more recognised Dublin schools, but according to the Senior Cup team coach, Jeff Carter, his team feeds off the success of the Kilkenny hurlers.

“A lot of our pupils come from hurling backgrounds, especially a lot of day pupils who come from a lot of local clubs around Kilkenny which is a big following. We don’t have GAA in the school — it’s primarily rugby and hockey. From my point of view, being a PE teacher, I’ve trained hurling teams in the past before. I know Brian Cody and I know a couple of the Kilkenny senior players. I admire their training regime, and admire what they’ve done in the past. And certainly the boys do as well. We’re very, very conscious of the success in Kilkenny.

“When Kilkenny do well in the hurling, the kids would always be talking about it, a lot of kids would be going to the matches, would be wearing the famous black and amber hurling jerseys in PE classes.

“People hear of Kilkenny College and they think that it’s St Kieran’s College. People from outside the county tend to get us mixed up quite a lot with Kieran’s. You’d hear ‘you’re big hurlers up there’ and I say ‘well, actually, we’re a rugby school’. They’re surprised to hear of a rugby school in Kilkenny. It’s got a great tradition of rugby.”

A number of players on Carter’s squad come from GAA backgrounds. No 8 Tim Dukelow has gaelic links. His father Peter played for Bantry Blues in west Cork, trained the Kilkenny footballers and is heavily involved with the Dicksboro club. Centre Stephen Hemmingway, from Enniscorthy in Co Wexford, is a keen hurler and footballer while prop George Beattie, a native of Co Wicklow, dabbles in gaelic in summer. Down the line, the College’s Junior Cup team comprises two Kilkenny minor hurlers, David Glynn and James Hoyne.

Abbeyleix-born Carter is also a past pupil of Kilkenny College and was a member of their Senior Cup team in 1992. In his day, Kilkenny College played in Section A of the Senior Cup, a level just below the bigger Dublin guns. Back then, at that level, they were successful but their ascendancy this decade runs in tandem with the rise and rise of Irish rugby. Next Tuesday they play favourites St Michael’s in the semi-final, their third since 2000.

One man who has waited many years for a result like Monday’s is games master James Morrow. “I suppose the number of non-elite schools who’d have beaten Blackrock in a Cup match would have been few and far between. It was probably the biggest result because Blackrock would be seen as the top rugby playing school in the country and to beat them in the Senior Cup quarter-final, it’s hard to match that. In 2000 we beat St Mary’s to get to the quarter-final of the Senior Cup. We were beaten by Clongowes in the semi-final. They eventually won it. In 2001 we were beaten by Terenure in the semi-final and they went on to win it as well. This is our third semi-final since 2000. I would rate this win as the tops because to beat Rock after a replay — that doesn’t happen too often.”

Morrow gave due praise to Blackrock and the magnanimous manner in which they accepted their defeat — “they were truly magnificent in the way they took defeat; there was so sour grapes, no begrudgery. I’m sure privately they were very upset” — but the scale of Kilkenny’s result over the perennial front-runners is intriguing, when their respective playing numbers are put up for comparison. Perhaps what they lack in number, they make up in heart. “Where we lack at times is just numbers — where Blackrock might have eight or nine hundred boys we’ve got 210-odd playing rugby, so it’s a lot of hard work and dedication from the coaches and from the players themselves,” says Carter.

Carter has ten of last year’s squad involved this season, and has no problem dealing with the underdog tag against St Michael’s next Tuesday. Written off so many times in the past, his players have a habit of producing their best form when their backs are against the wall.

“We’ll be underdogs for the St Michael’s game which is on next Tuesday. We definitely live by the underdog label and as far as I’m concerned it’s the perfect label — we can work on that and it’s motivation in itself to know you’re battling against a very tough school with a good reputation. They’ve won it 65 times in 120 years.”

Maybe that feeling of being written off stems from the fact they mirror Munster in some ways. Geographically they’re closer to Thomond than Donnybrook and spiritually that appears to be the case too. For example, Carter and Morrow received congratulatory texts from PBC head coach Don Buckley, and he says St Munchin’s now want a challenge game. Mick Galwey who lives in the city took Carter’s side for a training session three weeks ago.

“Mick has shown an interest in the team. We managed to get him for a session and the boys responded very, very well to him. He only had to walk onto the field and you noticed the kids lifting their game.”

And he adds that in his school it’s not unusual to see Munster jerseys a more popular choice amongst students than Leinster blue.

Carter will never forget the events of Monday in Dublin 4. He remembers how he was feeling as Ian Madigan stood up to take the last kick of the game. “When they were awarded the penalty the last kick of the game I actually looked at my assistant coach Simon Manuel and I said ‘oh we’re gone’, But even at that stage I would have been terribly disappointed but I couldn’t have asked anymore from the lads — I asked them to put themselves on the line and they did just that. They’re a credit to themselves and the way they work and the way they train.”

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