It was a time when nothing else mattered. An entire season’s toil and effort distilled into a handful of knockout schools’ cup matches, all geared towards making the final on St Patrick’s Day.
Frighteningly, four decades have passed — it feels slightly more palatable describing it that way than saying it’s more than 40 years — since I last experienced that special feeling, when CBC beat age-old rivals Pres in a Munster Schools’ Senior Cup match.
The fact that it was in the final itself and I was captain only served to make my last ever game of schools rugby an even more special and memorable experience.
The respective team colours haven’t changed even if the new, skin tight jerseys now sported by all the professional teams has also worked its way into the schools arena. What the ultra-modern strip emphasises most is the sheer difference in size and physique of the current schools rugby player.
All have been exposed to the latest training programmes, carefully designed and managed through the off-season by dedicated strength and conditioning coaches with a view to having their squad in peak physical condition for the crucial six-week phase of cup rugby that will serve to define the success or failure of the years invested by the school in their players in getting to this point.
The generations may change but the surnames keep repeating. On board for CBC, occupying the same position as his late uncle Gus — a cherished team-mate from all my successes in Christians colours — was Eoghan Barrett, a balanced and elegant runner who tested the Pres defence every time he was in possession.
It was no surprise that he was the one to offer Christians a lifeline with his team’s badly-needed opening score with a well-executed try at a time when Christians sat 15 points in arrears.
A vital tackle from the impressive PBC back rower Alex Kendellan cut Barrett down in full flow when another decisive break from him threatened to haul his side back into the contest with 18 minutes to go. Not to be denied, he managed a second try three minutes later to do just that.
Directly opposite Barrett in the centre, another player with a bright future is PBC’s Sean French. I have been tracking his progress with interest for some time. If pedigree in sport counts for anything, then this young man is set to go far.
His grandfather of the same name, a former TD and Lord Mayor of Cork, played with my dad for St Nicholas’ when they were crowned Cork county football champions in 1954. Ironically Christians full back Robert Hedderman’s grandfather Billy was also a former St Nick’s teammate.
French’s grandfather on his mother’s side was the great Jerry Murray, a legendary figure for Cork Constitution and Munster over a remarkable career that spanned four decades.
French is a really impressive looking athlete, not only is he strong in the tackle and confident on the ball, but he also possesses a siege gun of a right boot from placed balls and out of hand.
His body language oozed confidence right from the off and it was no surprise to see him finish off an excellent break from his equally impressive centre partner Jonathan Wren with an audacious piece of skill, under pressure, to register the opening try of the game. We will be hearing a lot more about him in the future.
Lining out at full back in that impressive PBC backline, another grandson with a serious lineage. Watching from the main stand, observing Louis Bruce’s every move, his granddad Tommy Kiernan. He had every reason to be proud.
These games have never been short of incident — I promised myself in advance of writing this piece that I wouldn’t bring up the nine minutes of injury time that facilitated Alex O’Regan’s famous winning drop goal for Christians back in 1976 — but the outcome of this contest has left me with no choice.
A penalty from impressive Christians out-half Eoin Monaghan, deep into added time, that rebounded off the posts denied both sides the opportunity of a replay which, on the back of what transpired, I’m sure Pres would grab with both hands right now.
It was like Groundhog Day watching the Pres supporters ready to invade the pitch as the clock once again ticked towards the ninth minute of injury time as they did at this same venue all of 42 years ago, only to be overrun by their Christians counterparts when O’Regan’s stroke of genius denied them.
On this occasion Christians winger Adam O’Connor proved the hero, finishing magnificently in the corner for the try that would break Pres hearts once again.
It was cruel in the extreme. Given the quality of this superb encounter, with two excellent teams left drained at the death having given everything to the cause of their two famous schools, a draw would have been the fairest outcome.
Sport, as we know, just doesn’t work like that. Schools rugby remains all or nothing.
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