Last year, the Senior Cup Team of St. Conleth’s College completed the most magical season of any sports team in the long and storied history of the school. Longtime stalwarts of Section A and the McMullen Cup, St. Conleth’s have always turned heads for their exemplary commitment and stylish play but have often fallen short of the silverware, simply because of their smaller pool of players. The 2015/2016 season changed all that, and the Leinster rugby world was forced to stand up and take notice that the always-plucky boys from Clyde Road in Ballsbridge were now a legitimate force with which to be reckoned, at any level. Head Coach (and St. Conleth’s old boy) Gavin Maguire’s steady stewardship of a team on a six-year journey to the top has clearly captured the imagination of all those who appreciate an amateur sport being played the right way, both on the pitch and off.
The SCT entered this season with high expectations: the core of the team, led by Captain (and No. 8) Kevin Dolan, had won the Shield at JCT level and already had two years of senior play under its belt. Comfortable victories in the early friendlies did nothing to dispel this confidence but the draw of Castleknock in the first round of the Vinnie Murray Cup seemed a cruel roll of the dice: we were playing above our usual level and they were playing down, a recipe for a blowout. Instead, that which followed on a crisp, clear afternoon in Donnybrook will go down in the rugby annals of both schools and delighted neutrals of every, and no, stripe. Fly-half Ben Doggett’s exquisite kicking and the Conlethians’ steady pack play staked themselves to a surprising lead. Rugby royalty, however, does not just roll over, and Castleknock fought and clawed their way back, scoring an injury-time try to break Conlethian hearts, 27-25. Perhaps our greatest victory of the year, ironically, came in that loss. Not only did we push a formidable foe to the very limit, but Coaches Maguire and Michael Hassett rallied the boys in the very midst of the post-match tears and led a group of determined young men from the field.
With Castleknock now steaming on to the Vinnie Murray Final, St. Conleth’s SCT would have been forgiven for being distracted by the ruing of a narrowly missed opportunity but drawing on the resilience which is a hallmark of this tight-knit group, they girded their loins and got back to work. They were all business in the McMullen Cup Semifinal as they dispatched Maynooth 44- 8 with the usual suspects, David Pogatchnick and Mati Remi, manhandling the opposition all over the pitch, and Nicolas Foreau and Brendan Connor scoring brace of tries each. Winger Michael McKay was simply a different class on the day, with scintillating runs and two memorable tries. The following victory, over High School, 27-3, in the Vinnie Murray Plate Semifinal, was not a stylish affair, played in a mud-bath and under horrific conditions. But a win is a win, and the great teams can win can persevere in any conditions and on this occasion, normally swish players such as Ross Murphy and Cameron Ross-O’Reilly were willing to get dirty to get the job done.
Three titles were now on the line and there were two matches to win them. The victory over Enniscorthy in the McMullen Cup Final in Donnybrook Stadium, 41-0, was such a consummate triumph that Gavin, his SCT and the whole St. Conleth’s community, past and present, was able to take pleasure in the day, and who could blame them? It had been thirty years since a Cup had been raised aloft by a St. Conleth’s SCT captain, and Kevin Dolan made the most of it, but as always with our No. 8, with impeccable sportsmanship and manners, repeatedly and flawlessly leading his team like a mobile colossus up and down the pitch, but straying several yards offside in the waning moments to to help up a fallen opponent, overcome by the enormity of his defeat.
This Vinnie Murray Plate and League Final was more like a tank battle than a cavalry charge, and the echoes of the ferocious hits laid and absorbed by both sides are still echoing down the backstreets and alleyways of Donnybrook. Full credit to Templeogue for coming with a game-plan and the willingness to play: after ‘old reliable’ Ben Doggett set them back with a couple of perfectly struck penalties, the boys from Dublin 6 dug in and proceeded to apply pressure for most of the next hour or so, culminating with a massive back making a charge for the try-line. Suddenly, there was a bolt of black-and-green and the subsequent collision shook the stadium… When we regained our senses we saw Conleth’s regrouping and Templeogue in retreat: Colin Duffy had delivered the hit of the season and no photograph or video will ever capture the seismic magnitude of that smash. Our boys still had to hang in there and there were many heroes on the day: Simon Ghose calmly catching many a high ball and turning things back the other way; David McKeown buzzing round the scrums and making the important first pass; Sean Frison-Roche applying a bit of French flair; Robert Cripwell and Paddy Cahill doing the hard work up front; and perhaps most tellingly of the team-spirit which Gav has engendered in these boys: The proud participation towards the end of players who may not have received much game-time this season but always were at the heart of the team: Sam O’Dea, Philip Carroll, Elliott Browne and Daniel Kenny. The ‘treble’ was St. Conleth’s and a magical season had come to a memorable end.