Landing Cistercian College Roscrea’s first ever Leinster Schools’ Senior Cup was sweet. Sweeter maybe than an All-Ireland football title to a Kerryman
On Thursday morning they were teenage boys again, but, no dreams to beat.
There was nothing to distinguish them now except the sweet feeling inside, invisible to the outside world. On Tuesday, they had captured their own piece of heaven. All evidence of that historic triumph was now hidden beneath sleepy eyes and school uniforms.
For one player, the feeling was familiar, if not quite the same. Rob Wharton was on a bigger stage last September, helping Kerry collect their first minor All-Ireland football title since 1994.
The experience was intensified by the presence of Sam Maguire later that night at the Kerry banquet. And while almost nothing can compare to that September day at Croke Park — not that it doesn’t stop people asking — there was more significance attached to that magical moment last Tuesday afternoon when the Leinster Schools Senior Cup was presented to a Roscrea player for the first time.
“To be fair, Kerry have often won All-Irelands, we’d (Roscrea) never ever won a Senior Cup. It’s something more than just a team that wins a cup, it’s for everyone that’s gone on previously, all these past pupils that didn’t get any success at all,” says Wharton.
From the depths of south Kerry, Wharton has been travelling to the Cistercian College for the last six years. By car, by train and by bus, the journey takes five hours but the time has flown since he first left Renard to begin secondary school. And yet in September, 2009, he was a young boy feeling homesick.
“I remember I was always hesitant about going because it was so far away from home,” he says. “It was my first time being away from home and you were there for three weeks on end, it was tough.”
At home, he had forged a bond with his mum, Alice, that went far beyond mother and son.
“I’m an only child, it’s myself and my mum. She’s like my best friend more than anything,” he says.
When he overcame the initial shock of not seeing her every day, he quickly adapted to life as a boarder. His desire to attend Roscrea stemmed from the talk he had heard about the place.
“I’d always heard from people going to the school from down my area that it was a great school, education-wise. Sport was only like an added bonus.”
At that stage, rugby couldn’t have been much further from his thoughts. The nearest club, Killorglin, was a 40-minute drive away and anyway, boys from South Kerry only dreamed about one thing: All-Ireland medals.
Back home during the holidays, Wharton was a footballer with green and gold ambitions but winters fuelled a different desire, one that he never expected.
“I thought I’ll definitely do the hurling and not a chance of me doing the rugby. After my first few (rugby) sessions, I absolutely loved it.”
Initially, he was cast among the forwards but his time in the second row was short-lived. He moved to the centre and discovered the joys of playing alongside Tim Foley.
“Tim was always telling me what to do. To be honest, I was a bit headless going in. He kind of eased me into it gradually,” Wharton recalls. “He definitely made me any bit decent at the game. You can imagine coming from Gaelic football not having a notion about rugby. Even basic things; learning how to pass the ball. It was an absolute wonder to me how he (Foley) could spin the ball.”
Foley played at 12, with Wharton outside him. The partnership has continued for six seasons. Together they have formed their own version of the D’Arcy-O’Driscoll midfield axis.
Like Wharton, Foley has also travelled great distances. From Bantry in West Cork, he is the son of former Cork hurler, Mark Foley, the man who famously scored 2-7 from play in the 1990 Munster final against Tipperary.
Today Tim is on international duty with the Irish under-18 schools squad in Scotland, four days after leading Roscrea to the promised land. He has come a long way since he first started out playing mini rugby with Skibbereen.
Foley, along with Wharton, full-back Tim Carroll and prop Mattie Keane have come through together since beginning first year at Roscrea in 2009. Carroll also made today’s Irish schools squad, as did prop Dylan Murphy, although Murphy only joined the school last September.
Murphy and Foley are already accustomed to long journeys. Along with Fineen Wycherley and Philip O’Shea, they leave Bantry at 5pm on Sunday nights when they’re heading back to Roscrea. The boarders head home every third weekend, 180 teenage boys scattered throughout Munster and beyond.
Murphy, Foley, Wycherley and O’Shea get the train from Thurles, arriving into Kent Station 90 minutes later. From there, they share a lift home to West Cork. All told, it takes more than three hours. And when they’re not catching up on homework along the way, the conversation quickly turns to rugby.
“We talked so much at the start of the year about how much we wanted to win the cup,” says Wycherley, who plays in the second row. “We had a strong feeling about this year. If we trained hard, we would have a good team there.”
For Wycherley, the cup was all new to him. A fifth year, he joined Roscrea from Colaiste Pobail Bheanntraí in September. His grandfather, Geoffrey, was a past pupil at Roscrea. Fineen inherited a love of rugby from his father, Flor. It was back in Bantry that Fineen, aged six, got his first taste of the game.
“Dad was always involved in coaching underage in Bantry. I loved rugby straight away. I was straight into second row, my father played there as well.”
With the club, he played alongside Dylan Murphy and Philip O’Shea. All three came to Roscrea at the start of the season, Murphy and Wycherley joining a formidable pack.
“Dylan is in the front row. I’m always behind him,” says Wycherley. “He started when he was U10 and we’ve been playing ever since on the same teams. I push nearly too hard sometimes and then other times I wouldn’t be pushing hard enough.”
When they powered their way to a league final before Christmas, there was plenty of cause for optimism. Old foes Newbridge College stood in the way. Once again, Roscrea came out the wrong side, feeling the pinch of their sixth successive defeat to the Kildare school.
The previous season, Newbridge had halted their progress in the first round of the Senior Cup. The year before, they were stung at the death by Blackrock in the semis. Wharton, for one, was sick of the same sight.
“We were 20-9 ahead with 10 minutes to go and they had only 14 men and to go and lose that by three points was something I never wanted to feel again,” he says of that 2012 defeat to Blackrock.
“At the very start of this year, we had a get-together. We knew we had the talent, it was putting it into motion. Everyone knew we could achieve something.”
Wharton’s confidence was sky high at that stage, having tasted victory in the All-Ireland minor football final at Croke Park. His appearance as a second-half substitute during Kerry’s win against Donegal was a personal victory, having battled back from a brutal injury sustained the previous summer. In his first season with the Kerry minors in 2013, he missed their All-Ireland quarter-final because of a shattered right elbow.
“I was out for six months. Even at the moment, I still haven’t got full extension on it. I was in a cast from my wrist to my shoulder. I was in that for two-three months and another couple of months in a sling.”
Unable to write, by the time he returned to school, all he could do was listen in class. At rugby training it was worse, having to watch what he couldn’t do.
“It was well after Christmas when I got back. My second rugby game back was the first round of the cup last year against Newbridge,” he recalls. After the heartbreak against Blackrock the year before, it was another painful loss.
Wharton at least had the consolation of another summer with the Kerry minors although getting to training was a trek in itself. The train from Thurles would take him to Killarney but he relied on lifts to make it back to Roscrea afterwards.
His Gaelic football odyssey continued all summer. Ahead of the All-Ireland final, he received a special gift from Roscrea.
“The vice-principal (Brendan McVeigh) got me a pair of football boots with my name on them and the school initials (CCR). It means a lot getting a token of appreciation like that.”
Because he hadn’t time to break them in properly, Wharton’s new Adizeros didn’t grace Croke Park but he wouldn’t wear anything else now. They’ve been the one constant throughout a roller-coaster Senior Cup campaign.
After a comfortable victory against Wesley in the first round, Roscrea were back in a familiar role as underdogs. Treble-chasing Blackrock were as shocked after their quarter-final.
“What really did it was the win against Blackrock. After we beat Blackrock, everyone kind of knew this was going to happen,” says Wharton, but there were still two exhausting games to come before they made it to the final.
Their 20-19 replay win against Newbridge could have been nothing more than the end of a hoodoo. Yet when it came to the final on St Patrick’s Day against Belvedere, Roscrea duly delivered what had seemed like destiny for Wharton.
“I don’t know if we definitely thought we could win it all the way back in first year but it was always a dream,” he says. “We really needed to win it. It’s so much more than just us as a team. It’s the whole school.”
Amid the celebrations after the final whistle at the RDS on Tuesday, he embraced his best friend but no words passed between Alice Wharton and her son. They smiled at each other because words could not convey how they felt inside.
That night, the players and their parents stayed in Dublin to celebrate. On Wednesday, they brought the cup south for the first time. It was then that the scale of what they had achieved began to register.
“It was something special. It was the first time having the cup in the front hall, it really sunk in then,” says Wharton.
He will return home to Reenard for Easter and after that he will begin his final term at Roscrea before the Leaving Cert rolls around in June. The possibility of returning to the school as a teacher one day appeals to him and the chance to work alongside those who have helped him along the way. Principal Brendan Feehan, Vice-Principal Niall McVeigh and the schools’ Director of Sport Brendan McKeogh have been huge influences. Shane Hennessy has been a huge supporter as well.
“The school has made me who I am today in every aspect, sport-wise and education,” he says. “I haven’t left yet but it’s something that I know I’ll miss. It’s been a rollercoaster six years and I don’t really want it to end.”
Fineen Wycherley at least will get the chance to come back and play Senior Cup again next year. For now, the double is a possibility, when for years the cup seemed unattainable.
“I’d do anything to play schoolboy rugby again,” are Wharton’s parting words.
In his mind he’ll probably never stop replaying Tuesday’s game.