Senior Cup final day invariably draws past-pupils together in fierce shows of pride. Today, most of the Glenstal Abbey side of 47 years ago will reconvene at Thomond Park, memories still sharp of the only other occasion the school made a senior final.
Glenstal Castle is to be found on the outskirts of the village of Murroe about 12 miles from Limerick. It was built by the Barrington family in the 1830s and acquired by the Benedictine Order in 1928.
Rugby quickly became its first sporting love but with student numbers invariably limited to fewer than 200 they rarely threatened at the business ends of the various competitions. Opponents loved visiting this delightful college and grounds, happy the welcome was warmer and the sandwiches and cakes appreciably tastier than might be on offer elsewhere. And, of course, there was always a decent chance you would depart with a satisfactory result.
Fr Peter Gilfedder’s arrival at Glenstal in the 1950s brought about a certain change in attitude to the school’s sporting aspirations. A devotee of athletics, in very little time he produced boys capable of winning provincial and national honours at field events such as the javelin, shot putt, hammer and discus.
Numerous honours came Glenstal’s way in the 1960s and 70s and at much the same time the rugby teams began to make an impression, eventually reaching the final of the Munster Schools Senior Cup in 1970. Former pupils turned up in large numbers for the decider against Rockwell College and helped to make for a bigger than usual crowd at Thomond Park on St Patrick’s Day.
The dramatic climax to the game lives clearly in the memory of many of the approximately 5,000-strong crowd. A first-half Billy Gabbett try, worth three points at the time, had Glenstal ahead at half-time. They retained that advantage right to the dying minutes when Rockwell scrum-half Peter Hanahoe (of the famed Dublin Gaelic football family) broke ‘Glen’ hearts when he snatched an equaliser, forcing a replay that the Tipperary side narrowly won.
Limerick man Gabbett, like many of his Glenstal team-mates, intending to be back for the school’s second final today.
“I have always had an interest in the teams and kept close ties with the school since I left and have a good number of friends out there,” says Gabbett, whose cousin Walter O’Brien also played. “I first went to the Crescent in the city and played a small bit of rugby under Fr Guinane – or The Ginner – and I suppose he first taught me how to pass a ball. Then I went to Glenstal. Why? I’m not sure because there was no great tradition in the family. But my father, Alec, he liked Glenstal, he used to do a bit of work for them on the big farm they had out there at the time as we had the cattle market here in town.
“It was straightaway into the rugby. It was more or less compulsory. I think we had 160 students as opposed to 900 in Rockwell at the time. Fr Peter was the big man, the man who kept rugby flowing. He was a slight little man, played scrum-half in his day, a Donegal man. He was strict on us but very supportive. A nice man. Often coming back after a win, he’d say ‘boys, would you like to stop’, and we would and we’d have a pint.
“Coming up to the cup, we’d practice every day, maybe twice a day, and we had a very good team that year. Barnaby O’Sullivan was the key man in the pack, all of 19 stone and fit as well. He was English originally, his father was a Harley Street specialist, and his brother PD was also on the team.
“Playing the final in Thomond Park was a big deal. There was a big build-up and we had huge support. The rest of Limerick was with us.”
Might the current crop go one better?
“I saw them the last day and I think they have a chance but they need to be a bit more crafty, a bit cuter, because Pres teams are always cute. Our fellas are good, they are well coached, Sean Skehan is doing a great job, they’re pumped up and they’re no slouches. I think they could do it.
“I’m looking forward to reminiscing with my old teammates on St Patrick’s Day. There’s a pre-match function and I hope there’s a big turn-out for the team and the rest of the town will support them.”
1970 drawn final teams:
P McElhinney; M Slattery, A Hickey, P McNaughton, P Lee; M Ryan, P Hanahoe; J Grennan, C Haydar, D Ormond capt, M Morrissey, F Brady, P Kane, W Cronin, V Lonergan.
F McElligott; W O’Brien, G Bradley, W Gabbett, F Corbett; M Kennedy, J Hegarty; E Quigley, R Deasy, A O’Sullivan, C Griffin, J Quigley, P Chamberlain, B O’Sullivan, G Harvey.
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