Ralph Keyes: 'There’s probably been a missed opportunity to develop Munster Senior Cup'

That time of the year: Glenstal Abbey and Presentation Brothers College face off in today’s Munster Senior Cup final (Thomond Park, 4pm, live on eir Sport).

A competition with a rich history and heritage, the crowds will flock to the Limerick venue this afternoon — but could it be better?

Ireland legend Ralph Keyes thinks so, even though he’s emphatic about its appeal.

“Does it still have the same place in the rugby calendar for people?” says Keyes.

“Of course it does, certainly for the schools involved.

“The one thing I feel could have changed in the last few years is that everything still can hang on the one match, when there were opportunities to expand the competition and to make it a more developmental competition for schools. I thought you could have created a proper league, which would have developed players without putting them under the pressure of that one big day, if you like. There’s probably been a missed opportunity in that regard. The cup could always have been there as well.”

Ralph Keyes
Ralph Keyes

Keyes views the possibility of that parallel league competition as a way to improve those youngsters. He says: “It’s still a big event in the calendar of a schools player, you only have to turn up to see the crowds at the matches, the hype, and the pressure — but to me there should be a meaningful league with it.

“The schools would all play friendlies during the year which are matches, fair enough, but they mean nothing really, and you could be playing games in a league system which would be more competitive and which develop those players at a better rate alongside the Cup.”

With the professionalisation of rugby, it’s only natural to cast an eye over today’s game for future prospects, but Keyes is cautious about taking that view.

“Obviously a lot of players at Schools Cup level never go on to play rugby afterwards, that’s a choice they make. They pursue academic careers or focus on their education.

“A number of players in school probably view rugby as a career path, which is a dangerous way to go, I think. The advice to any player or parent would be, ‘Sure, pursue the dream if you can but not at the expense of an education’. That should be the priority with school and the rugby running alongside each other; there are plenty of lads now in academies who are pursuing an education alongside the rugby.

“The academies are careful to ensure that the players get advice on their careers alongside the rugby — academies which don’t do that would be doing their players a disservice.

“In any case most of the schools players don’t play professionally, they play club or social rugby. That’s what the competition is about, you’re representing your classmates, your family, all of that — it has an aura all to itself and it’s special in its own right.

“The hype and pressure that players face at that level prepare them for the elation and disappointment later — they learn how to deal with those in that sporting context.”

Keyes’ parallel league would also be good for standards in the games themselves, he adds, pointing to the way pressure sometimes squeezes out creativity on the big day.

“I’d feel a parallel league system which would have greater significance throughout the calendar year does a couple of things. It allows players to develop skill-wise, it gives them the opportunity to try different things and to develop in that way, and it would also dial down the untold pressure that can appear on the eve of a big Schools Cup match.

“If you’re training all year and playing friendlies that don’t count in terms of pressure, and then you’re suddenly thrown into the middle of a Crescent-Munchin’s or a Christians-Pres match, with half the city turning up to see what all the training was about...

“I think a league would give players more confidence in a cup environment, which would only improve the standards. We’ve often seen that happen in the last ten years; you go and see some great friendlies — then you go to the cup game itself and it ends up 9-3, the players may have frozen on the day.”

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