By Duncan Casey
Dismal weather spoiled what should have been a thrilling game of expansive rugby at Thomond Park yesterday. Two capable sides were hampered by the conditions. Although schools finals are rarely as entertaining as the games that precede them, the rain and wind ruined this one from a neutral’s perspective.
A well-drilled and physically imposing PBC got the better of Glenstal up front and deserved to win the cup for the first time since 2010. Glenstal must continue to wait. Despite losing, they’ve cemented their place in the hierarchy of Munster schools’ rugby. Making it to a cup final with a student population of just over 200 is no easy task, and shows how far the Murroe dwellers have come in recent times.
Schools’ rugby itself has transformed lately. This year, in particular, I was blown away by a number of things. The first and most obvious to the naked eye is the physical condition of the boys. They are simply enormous. I left Glenstal in 2009. Back then, each team had two, maybe three, guys that were considered big. Now it’s eight or nine. They are strong, powerful, athletic, and skillful in a way that would have put the schools’ sides of 2009 to shame.
One complaint people have made over the years is that youngsters coming out of school in Munster cannot compete physically with their Leinster counterparts. Perhaps that was a fair assessment in the past but it is not the case any more. This is evident in the newest crop of Munster academy prospects.
I played alongside Ronan Coffey for Shannon as I made my return from injury against UL Bohs a few weeks ago. He was one of the biggest men on the pitch at 108kg and was underage to play schools’ rugby again this year. Fineen Wycherley, who made his Munster debut a couple weeks ago, is 115kg. The fact the coaches had the confidence to select a 19-year-old in the second row in today’s professional game shows how physically mature these guys have become.
The second and more impressive feature of modern schools’ rugby is the skill level. The gameplans on show in the Munster Senior Cup this year are light years ahead of what they were when I was playing. Back then, being able to identify and stay in your designated pod of forwards was pretty revolutionary. It was a case of running around the corner or running hard lines off the out-half. Little else came into the equation. This was not due to a lack of coaching prowess but simply because that is where the game was in 2009.
This year, each side played with two lines of attack. Forwards moved the ball out the back of hit lines to a back, who either moved it wide, left it inside for a trail runner coming at pace, or had a go himself. Offloading is no longer something that draws gasps from onlookers at schools matches, it is expected and executed with the finesse of a Pacific Islander.
These developments are reflected in the quality coming out of our schools. Nine of the matchday 23 who lined out for Ireland U20 last night were from Munster.
Yesterday was one of those days where you are as well off kicking the ball into the lineout as throwing it. I cringed for both hookers each time the ball went into touch, knowing how difficult a task they had to negotiate. Both sides struggled in this department. PBC, however, managed to retain enough of their own ball to give themselves a platform and gain territory, something Glenstal desperately sought during the second half.
In terms of star performers, it was hard to look past PBC captain and No8 Jack O’Sullivan. On such a miserable day, it was a time for big ball carriers to step up and grab the game by the horns — that is exactly what he did. He ran excellent lines off his scrum-half and generated plenty of go forward for his pack off the scrum, in much the same way Paddy Butler did for Rockwell years ago. I’m sure I’ll be seeing Jack joining his cousins, Niall and Rory Scannell, in Munster this year.
Rory Clarke and Mark Fleming led the effort in the Glenstal pack but a number of handling errors at crucial moments meant they rarely got past four or five phases of play. They struggled to break PBC down as a result.
Glenstal out-half Ben Healy is one to watch. I remember travelling out to a rugby summer camp in Glenstal with JJ Hanrahan and a few others when Ben was in second year. Afterwards, JJ wouldn’t shut up about how impressed he was by Ben’s goal kicking and attitude. He has continued in that vein and has turned heads around the province. Still only in fifth year, he will be responsible for ensuring the hunger his teammates showed this season continues into next year.
As biased as I understandably am, I do believe a dry day may have seen a reversal of fortunes based on what I saw Glenstal do this season. You have to play the hand you are dealt with, however, and PBC did so in a superior fashion.