Nobody who attended the 2000 Munster Senior Schools Cup final — this reporter, then 13 years old, was among them — was unlikely to forget Rockwell College’s number eight.
Denis Leamy wasn’t the household name in those days that he went on to be, but he had greatness stamped all over him already. The fulcrum of everything good the Tipperary school did in those days, he even took some of the kicks at goal.
He crashed over for one of the two tries that had Rockwell 15-3 to the good against CBC that year, but a dramatic late comeback saw the Cork boys nick a 25-18 win in a final that has struggled to be beaten for drama in the 13 years since.
Leamy left school without a senior medal, and although he went on to win Heineken Cups with Munster and a Grand Slam with Ireland, the hollow feeling has never left him.
“Rockwell had been in the doldrums for a long time, we hadn’t been in a senior final for the best part of 10 years,” he said.
“CBC were very dominant around that time, they just had that air of invincibility around them and they refused to lie down. The occasion probably got to us, there was fatigue and bit of naivety too. It was hugely disappointing and it still is to this day.”
It can be sometimes difficult to believe players who have been so successful as professionals when they talk of schoolboy games as their biggest regrets, but Leamy is adamant about their importance.
“There’s games in your career you’d love to play again, and that is one,” he said. “The way schoolboy rugby works, you’ll only have a couple of opportunities at best. So when you do get so close, it’s heartbreaking to have it taken away from you.”
No such trouble for the current Rockwell outfit, with whom Leamy is part of the coaching staff this year. The Tipperary school are gunning for a third title in a row, and the 31-year-old Leamy — who was forced to retire prematurely last May due to injury — has found picking up the coach’s clipboard to be an illuminating experience.
“You have to be a little more detached as a coach, but in many ways you’re more involved,” he explained. “As a player out on the pitch you can deal with things a lot better, whereas it’s very frustrating on the sideline, not being able to get a feel for the game and its ebbs and flows. Sometimes we’d be getting a bit anxious on the sideline, but you ask the players about it and they’re pretty cool; they’ve a totally different perspective.
“What I can give guys is that I have played in a lot of big games; I use those experiences to help them out, give them experience of how I dealt with certain situations. I think they respond well, it’s very enjoyable to be working with players at this age.”
And so to today’s showpiece at Thomond, where Leamy expects to face a fired-up Crescent. The Dooradoyle school lost 15-5 to Rockwell in round one and have more miles on the clock, having had a semi-final replay against CBC that included a farcical 22 minutes of injury-time across both halves.
Leamy reckons his own Rockwell team are a “well-balanced” side that prides itself on work-rate, but knows nothing will come easy today.
“Having that replay will have done Crescent no harm, they’ll be battle-hardened,” he says. “They have a couple of superstars in guys like Greg O’Shea and Jack Dinneen, these guys are among the best schoolboys in Munster, we’ll have it all to do. I think we shocked them in the first game and caught them on the hop; we won’t have that luxury again.”
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