With the new cup format, Bandon qualified from Group A to contest the second round, where they will meet the winners of Rockwell and High School Clonmel. It was a mixed bag of pre-Christmas cup results, losing out to Pres , to CSP and to Castletroy but coming out on top against Ardscoil in early November to avoid a play-off place in the preliminaries.
As with ASR and Glenstal, the preliminary play-off most likely against Rockwell will represent a final of sorts, with anything beyond that a bonus for That precious two-point victory in last year's all-Cork decider meant a 13th outright senior title success for CBC, but perhaps even more relevant than that, it edged them back into the roll of honour lead, one outright win ahead of Pres and four clear of Rockwell.
With three final appearances and two more wins and , CBC have been the form school in Munster of late. Add to that another Junior Cup success when beating Crescent in and now, with that under squad, the signs are of another assault coming up over the next few weeks. Since , the Sidney Hill school has contested six Junior finals, winning three. Building that platform almost ensures a tilt at the top trophy when that time comes around.
Harry O'Riordan was captain of that successful cup-winning side at under level but is no longer available, and so leadership responsibility has shifted to Mac Fhlannchadha. In a squad littered with representative players, some 14 now involved have lined out for the province at under, 18 or 19 level with four of those players - Luke McAuliffe, Shane Buckley and George Coomber unders plus Aaron Leahy unders wearing the green of Ireland.
Buckley was also skipper to the Munster unders in Drawn in Group B of the Munster Senior Cup, everything has gone to plan in the pre-Christmas phase of the competition, with four wins from four culminating in a top qualifying place. Wins over Crescent , Rockwell , Glenstal and St Munchin's see the reigning champions in pole position ahead of that attempted title defence.
To counter-balance that defeat, an eight-point albeit friendly win over Leinster Cup holders St Michael's augurs well for what lies ahead. Finishing top of Group B with four wins from four sets up an opening defence of that hard-won title against a more-than-useful Castletroy side second to PBC in Group A given that the CSP selected team don't qualify in the second round. The winner of that tie will enter the semi-final, giving the loser a second shot at making the last four in a quarter-final play-off.
It sounds complicated but the bottom line sees every competing school playing more competitive matches than ever before. Given that I spent some of the best years of my life on the university campus in the immediate vicinity, it is difficult not to have a soft spot for a rugby-playing school that wasn't even a pipe dream back then. But as history now records, Castletroy didn't just take Munster schools rugby by storm, it rattled it to its core.
Not in the competition a wet week and then came that remarkable double. Little elaboration necessary, other than to say that a new force on the Limerick rugby scene had arrived. There has been another Junior Cup title taken since and there will be more again, of that I'm certain. Founded in and with both major provincial rugby cups in the locker eight years later, you couldn't make it up.
Bear in mind it took Leinster giants Belvedere a little over 80 years to put together a maiden double, it took Castletroy College just eight. Diarmuid McCarthy's match-winning try against Christians in Dooradoyle is now legendary, with the Junior win that followed when beating Pres the other half of the big two adding the cherry on top.
Against that, when the bar is set that high and so early, the element of surprise when meeting the new kids on the block is and has been eroded. The side has performed well in the league segment of the competition, beating Ardscoil and Bandon before drawing with PBC, leaving the defeat to CSP irrelevant in terms of qualification for the latter stages beyond a preliminary round involvement.
Michael O'Hanrahan is captain to what was a young squad last year and is therefore able to call upon a massive group of 24 players back from the extended senior panel in It includes inter-provincial age grade players in second row John Moloney Munster unders , while scrum half Jack Oliver, centre Sam Hanrahan and wing Louis Cunneen have all lined out with the provincial unders back in August.
Hanrahan has taken it a stage further and has just been confirmed in the under Ireland Schools squad. John Toland is a son of Old Crescent favourite and former Munster player Brian, while uncle Liam enjoyed a dual representative career with Munster and Leinster. He captained the latter in his time at Lansdowne in the early-to-mid 90s. The follow-on from the pre-Christmas Group is a round-robin which hasn't been kind, as it has delivered runaway winners of Group B, CBC, first up, but with a back-door option should Castletroy finish second to Christians.
Against all the odds, they pulled it off in Who would dare suggest they might be incapable of doing the same again now? With seven finals at Junior and three at Senior in the last decade, embracing Junior titles in , and followed by Seniors in and , Crescent have led the way in representing Limerick schools against the traditional strength and might of Christians, Pres and Rockwell. Seven finals out of 10 at unders between and indicates a school that has got its priorities right.
St Munchin's and Rockwell have bucked that trend in the last two years and that is good for the game, but credit Crescent and CBC for the manner in which they had dominated the decade at JCT level up to that, with one or other featuring in every final between and inclusive.
For the respective SCT squads preparing now for this campaign, and a last minute victory in the Junior Cup for Christians is fresh in every player's mind. A George Coomber conversion with the last kick of the game broke Crescent hearts and made it a long and painful journey back to Dooradoyle. So with 11 back from that JCT, and indeed the same number from last year's senior squad - again beaten by CBC and by the same agonising scoreline in the quarter-final - they will not lack for motivation in this upcoming competition.
The changed cup format has made for a much more competitive opening term, with Crescent taking the first significant piece of silverware courtesy of the Limerick City Cup when beating Ardscoil in the mid-term final. The newly designed cup group format has gone pretty well too, with victories over Glenstal , St Munchin's a low-scoring draw with Rockwell and a solitary defeat to yes, you guessed it CBC All of which means a place against PBC in the first qualifier quarter-final.
Scant reward for a good campaign, but with it the guarantee of a second bite at the cherry should they lose out in that game. Either way Crescent look very much the squad best placed to challenge the Cork Old Firm domination this time around. With due respect to Fr Peter, to Barnaby O'Sullivan, to Billy Gabbett and the breakthrough class of beaten in a replay by Rockwell , and have become the golden years of Glenstal rugby.
It was a special time in which Skehan and Hayes raised the bar to unprecedented heights. Fr Peter Gilfedder planted the seeds - literally the main pitch was his pride and joy and metaphorically upon his arrival in the mids. He was an extraordinary man to know and work with. If any one individual epitomised the resilience and never-say-die spirit that carried Glenstal rugby through many lean times, Fr Peter was that person.
Given the numbers game, it is an unfair burden but it comes with the territory now and making it to the top has to be the goal. Ex-St Michael's pupil and former Garryowen coach Skehan has moved back to Dublin where he is now head coach at Terenure, with Tom Hayes moving up from assistant to main man at Glenstal. The former Shannon and Exeter Chiefs player brother of Bruff, Shannon, Munster and Ireland legend John is very much a local and carries out his new-found responsibilities with great pride.
He is in charge of a squad for the upcoming campaign that includes 12 back from last year and is captained by Aidan Booth. Included are Munster under representatives in centre Will Twomey and prop Donagh Hyland, while Harry Swan is the son of ex-jockey and racehorse training legend Charlie Swan.
Booth leads a particularly young squad with a large number of Juniors making the step up straight away to Senior. It is a big ask. That said, the new cup format has enabled this inexperienced group to get a taste for Senior competitive fare early in the top-end cycle. Apart from a heavy defeat to CBC they have been ultra-competitive, despite losing to Crescent , Rockwell and St Munchin's Between them they have contested four of the six most recent finals, which is an exceptional achievement in itself.
A final in all but name. Whatever else, motivation will not be in short supply, with the north city school the pre-match favourites to edge it for round two. As a non-Section A school, that in itself is a significant achievement. To get to this stage where they confront the juggernaut that is time winners Rockwell College in the knock-out Senior cup first round , the Tipperary school accounted for Colaiste Choilm, Ballincollig in round one, Colaiste Pobail, Bantry in round two and St Clement's College, Limerick in round three of the mid-ranking tournament.
Last year represented the big breakthrough and with it the sobering experience of rising standards when coming up against a particularly strong Bandon Grammar unit in the first Round of the Senior Cup competition. The hope for Brendan Mullan and his coaching staff, all affiliated to Clonmel RFC, is that they will have learned and grown from that experience.
To that end, Cian Walsh is captain for the campaign and one of 13 back from last year's ground-breaking extended squad. Winger Lekan Oki lines out with Waterford United at under level. The experience gained in making it to this level two years running cannot be understated and for that, immense credit goes to Brendan Mullan, Jean Lonergan and the rest of the hugely enthusiastic backroom team. Over a year period between and , the Senior Cup made its way back to Cashel on 21 occasions.
To put that in a modern-day perspective, both PBC with 16 and CBC with 13 senior titles trailed the Blackrock College equivalent in Munster rugby over that comparable stretch of time. Over the next three decades just a single success was to follow and that came in when Conor Slattery captained the Tipperary school to an isolated Senior Cup win over CBC. Between and Christians, Pres and Crescent divvied out 29 of the 30 titles between them - the only interloper being St Munchin's in '82 when Pat Murray and Paul 'Moose' Culhane shared the captaincy.
Lisburn is hardly a rugby backwater - Jacob Stockdale is the highest profile of four players on Ulster's books from the school this season - but the fourth new addition, James McCormick, comes from even futher afield as a goal-kicking hooker from Dalriada. A Schools' Cup finalist for the sole time in when Ulster's European Cup winning number eight Tony McWhirter was at the base of their scrum, recent debutant Stewart Moore began his education there too, yet McCormick's achievement can certainly be considered infrequent.
On the whole, it's part of a wider trend with the latest edition of the Ulster U squad drawing talent from 20 different schools and clubs while the recent history of Academy intakes has certainly been less concentrated too.
Former Ulster and Ireland scrum-half Kieran Campbell became head of the Academy five years ago, joined by club legend Willie Anderson 12 months later, with the fortunes of the 'A' side improving dramatically in recent seasons and the senior side reaping the benefit thanks to the number of senior debutants over the past 18 months.
Their first new crop of youngsters contained eight players, the size of which has not been matched since. Of that group, Adam McBurney has made the most rapid progress, making 24 appearances for the senior side and starting their most recent game against the Cheetahs having begun his rugby life at Randalstown RFC. Also of that class was back-row Conall Boomer, coming into the system having spent a year in Australia after school.
An Irish under international of the vintage - the World Cup finalists of James Ryan, Stockdale and Andrew Porter - one wonders what odds you'd have got then that in March he'd still be most recent recipient of an Academy contract after coming through Methodist College, the Schools' Cup's most successful side. Near neighbours and fierce rivals RBAI have fared better with four players being brought into the system since then, Mike Lowry, James Hume, Callum Reid and David McCann, the fruits of their three-in-a-row Schools' Cup run between and , while there have been three from Campbell College over the same period.
All three are trophy-winning schools well coached to great successes and boasting large playing numbers, yet all have been eclipsed of late by Ballymena Academy, leading the way over the past four intakes with five Academy contracts. Indeed it is arguable, given similar numbers in the senior panel, that the Braid at present is Ulster's most fruitful catchment area, even if cynics would suggest Dublin.
Not every talented youngster wishes to be a professional rugby player, and certainly good prospects have been lost to study 'across the water', while it should be remembered too that there is more to schoolboy rugby than who is left celebrating come March Further still, this picture is set against a backdrop of tireless work by development coaches to cast the net further and wider than ever before, as well as an increased focus on upskilling young coaches whose influence stretches to all four corners of the province.
For essentially his entire career it was considered notable that Tommy Bowe hailed from Monaghan; plenty of valuable work has already taken place to ensure that changes in the years to come. A frequent stick used to beat the organisation in the past, an increased focus on all nine counties can only be commended. Yet should it be considered a worry that the area boasting the greatest density of population appears to be producing relatively few players per head?
At best it's an oddity. While a little over 21 years ago Ulster won a European Cup without an alumnus of 'the Big Three' taking the field in the final, and in a meritocracy geography doesn't come into the equation, an example of why the question matters can be seen in Leinster. Their wealth of success has been built upon the reality that for every Tadhg Furlong and Sean O'Brien the reliable production lines of Blackrock College and St.
Michael's are producing players five or sixfold. Dublin schools alone are generating more PROlevel players than Leo Cullen could ever use at the RDS yet the reduced pace of production in the Belfast area is already reflected in the senior squad. Of the 21 players in Dan McFarland's panel who spent at least one season of schooling in Ulster, seven, a third, did so in Belfast. Only six years ago that figure was close to half.
Rugby in Ulster has never been more widespread.
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