By Jonathan Drennan
For three short months, squads of teenage rugby players go through an experience that may never be rivalled for the rest of their lives. They exist in a bubble where balancing studies, family and friends is a constant experiment of trial and error. The margins of their homework jotters become filled with idle doodles of set plays and statistics that reflect their journey to the summit of the schools’ cup. St Patrick’s Day becomes embossed in their brains as their chance to play in a televised final at Ravenhill in front of a capacity crowd.
The schools’ cup experience in Ulster is one that is shared not only by the players, but by classmates, teachers, coaches and alumni who revel in its ancient tradition. Whole school communities get swept up in the hysteria that accompanies a run to the final. For Brian McLaughlin, it was the stepping stone that launched him into the coaching stratosphere by leading Ulster to a European Cup final. For former schools players of different generations, Luke Marshall (21), Roger Wilson (31), and Jack Kyle (86) it remains a vivid memory of an incredible time in their rugby careers.
Brian McLaughlin, in his new role as head of Ulster’s academy, is driving from Belfast to Ashbourne in County Meath on a freezing morning to watch Ulster youth v Leinster youth. It is far removed from the manicured playing surfaces of Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium, but it is from these players that McLaughlin still derives a huge amount of joy and satisfaction.
“I have always loved working with young players, it’s where I learnt about the game of rugby. Of course I miss Heineken cup games and the buzz you get off the crowd, but working with young people gives me an incredible passion still, and that started at school.”
After a one year appointment at Kilkeel High School, McLaughlin went on to take unfancied Lisburn school Wallace High to their first final in 1989, this brought him to the attention of the province’s then sleeping giant, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI), who hadn’t won a cup in 22 years when he was appointed in 1992.
McLaughlin was tasked to bring success to the school, and did so, winning his first title within three years and ending a drought. He feels this start at Wallace and later RBAI was crucial in helping him learn the game in its entirety from a coach’s perspective.
“When I started coaching, you’ve got to remember I was a young guy, I didn’t have anyone telling me how to coach, and schools rugby gave me an incredible opportunity to express myself and do it my way, I found out things along the way, some right and many wrong, but it was a quality time and I was exceptionally lucky to start out in this way.”
For many players, the schools’ cup has an irresistible allure, reunions for cup final teams happen every March, expats return from Canada, the USA and even Australia, to reminisce about their day at Ravenhill. Some of the slightly younger generation who now have children and mortgages make do with covert weekly viewings of their well-worn VHS copy of the final, memorising the sketchy commentary as precious prose.
McLaughlin also believes his experiences as a player for Regent House in Newtownards helped him become one of the most successful schools’ coaches in Ulster. “I remember losing against (Royal School) Armagh in the final for Regent, although it was a loss, it started a very special relationship with the cup. I understood the tradition and the allure that it had for the players, you want to create an incredible experience for the boys.”
As the years of the cup have progressed, so has professional rugby. For some schools, this professional approach is mimicked as they work towards a win that will live long in the memory of the school body. Ulster Number 8 Roger Wilson was coached by McLaughlin at RBAI and won the cup twice under his tutelage. His memories remain happy , but he understands the sacrifices needed.
“I played three seasons of schools’ cup rugby and was lucky to win it twice, but I was never under any allusions, it was really hard training with a lot of pressure and intensity. It’s not necessarily pressure from the coaches, but pressure gradually rises from outside the squad, not just in the school, but the media hyping you up as favourites, it just builds and builds until the final”.
For a schoolboy rugby player who is serious about making the final line-up for his school’s campaign, the sacrifices remain enormous. Early morning weight sessions, lunchtime scrum sessions and after school training are all supplemented by the need to actually study once in a while. Wilson remembers nearly falling asleep on his dinner plate as homework loomed.
“The training was regimented, but then you got enjoyment out of it, knowing the buzz it was creating around the school. I remember virtually everything, all the games and the scores, and winning it was incredible. Even after so many years as a pro, the win in that competition is right up there for me”.
His Ulster teammate Luke Marshall is a new breed of schools rugby player, who used the cup as a shop window for his talents, earning him a professional contract. He went to Ballymena Academy, a school with a proud rugby tradition that produced David Humphreys. However, the school have always felt isolated from the alleged Belfast big three of Methody, Campbell College and RBAI. Playing as an underdog in the cup gave him motivation that helped him in his professional career.
“Going to school outside of Belfast, you have this motivation to prove yourself in the cup against these big schools. It was a huge motivating factor for all of us, coming from Ballymena we always seemed to be written off, but that kind of thing only makes you want to get to Ravenhill even more.”
Unlike Wilson, Marshall never experienced winning a final, but he came close, reaching a semi-final. “Playing for Ulster was what I grew up wanting to do, but playing in a schools’ cup final was always something I dreamed about. It’s a special thing. You are playing beside boys you have grown up with and sat in maths with, it’s special. Then you’re trying to get to Ravenhill, you are playing for your school and all of your classmates.”
Unlike the Belfast schools, Marshall confesses that Ballymena had a more laissez-faire approach to training. “The most important thing for me about schools’ cup rugby is that I enjoyed it, that’s the crucial thing. We didn’t do many weights and we trained only a few times a week, but then after school it all got a bit more serious, and you miss those days sometimes.”
Jack Kyle could lay claim to the title of the greatest rugby player to have played for Ireland, but sitting in his beautiful home in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, he remembers his time playing in the schools’ cup for Belfast Royal Academy (BRA) vividly as some of the happiest days of his life.
“I remember playing for BRA so vividly, it was a great time in my life. I started playing at full back for BRA in the schools’ cup in my first year on the first xv, then something happened and one of the sport masters decided we were short at out-half, so they put me there and that’s where I stayed for the rest of my rugby career.
The schools’ cup was a huge event, the very thought of getting to Ravenhill as a boy to play in the final was so exciting. Of course, I never got there, the closest I came was getting beaten by a good Coleraine (Academical Institution) side. I remember distinctly being in tears after that game, the first and only time I ever cried after a game, but that’s how much it meant.”
Kyle smiles when he is told about the training regimes today’s cup teams go through; for him the cup was played in the Corinthian spirit. “It was a very leisurely thing really, but what a wonderful time, travelling all across the country to Portora, Ballymena and others. I just think of it as so many good times.”
The schools’ cup is a journey. For some players, it is the final destination in their rugby careers. For others, it is the start of bigger crowds and even tougher training regimes. Yet nothing can ever replicate the experience of the cup. Through the adversity of defeat and the joy of victory, this ungainly large wooden shield with a battered cup attached to it continues to capture the adulation of Ulster schoolboys.