Schools Rugby PRO-file: Paul O'Connell
Coming under the microscope in our Schools Rugby PRO-files this week is Munster, Ireland and Lions legend and former Ard Scoil Rís pupil, the one and only Paul O’Connell.
It’s hard to even fathom it now given all he’s achieved in his career with Munster and Ireland and given his status as one of the most influential rugby players this country has ever produced, but Paul O’Connell didn’t take to rugby until very late and nearly didn’t take to it all.
“I didn’t play rugby until I was 16 because I was doing other stuff (you probably know that O’Connell was a bit of a Michael Phelps in his school days),” Paul told JOE recently.
“It (Schools Rugby) definitely had an influence on my rugby career. I was very, very lucky with the people that were there, the mentors that were in Ard Scoil Rís at the time. Rugby was a big thing in my family, but it wasn’t a massive priority for me until I was pushed and cajoled into it at Ard Scoil Rís and luckily for me, I ended up with a career in it.”
O’Connell’s ability might have been signposted from an early age, but unlike future Munster and Ireland teammates, Jerry Flannery and Donncha O’Callaghan, O’Connell played in a team that wasn’t exactly making waves at schools level.
O’Connell lists the relative youth of the school (they opened their doors in 1963), their inexperience compared to other schools (rugby only caught on in the school in the 1980s) and the influence of hurling as factors why they didn’t make a greater impact in his schooldays.
The lack of success isn’t to say that Ard Scoil Rís didn’t push their weight around. O’Connell takes up the story.
“When I was in fourth year, I wasn’t involved with the senior team but they got to the Senior Cup final and they lost that to Pres Cork,” he says.
“Declan Lynch, who was our captain at the time, is now currently one of the physios at Arsenal; he was the guy who got Jack Wilshere back on the pitch recently.”
“The next year I played and Paul Neville was our captain. Paul went on to have a good career with Connacht and with Garryowen, he was the Garryowen captain and he’s Garryowen’s coach at the moment. That year, and it’s interesting in terms of JOE, we lost in the semi-final to a Munchin’s side that included Jerry Flannery. We scored five tries, they were all disallowed, and we lost 5-0.”
Stall the ball there Paul. Now we know there wouldn’t have been a TMO on hand or anything like that, but five tries in the one game seems dodgy to say the least. Interesting, also, that Jerry never mentioned it to us when we asked him about his time with Munchin’s a few weeks back.
So are those five disallowed tries still disputed more than a decade on?
“There is still a lot of debate about the tries but we reckon we scored two legitimate tries at least,” O’Connell says fairly magnanimously.
“They were disallowed for various reasons, held up, forward passes, this that and the other. I certainly didn’t agree with the decisions at the time, but the ref, John Cole, is a friend of mine and I’m still quite friendly with him now so I won’t say anything bad about him.”
Despite that hugely controversial setback, Paul went onto to do alright for himself, as did some of his teammates and some of those who wore the Ard Scoil Rís jersey after he left.
“From my team, Maurice ‘Mossy’ Lawlor went on to have a good career and Paul Neville went on to be a professional with Connacht,” Paul says.
O'Connell not long out of school in 2001
“Dave Kilcoyne and Mike Sherry (both Munster and Ireland) are obviously a long way after me, as was Keith Matthews, who also played with Connacht, so there were quite a few professionals and a lot of very good AIL players in Ard Scoil Rís down through the years. Fiachra Loughlan, for example, went on to have a very good career with Shannon, while Mike Prendergast, who is heavily involved with Young Munster, played with Munster, Bourgoin and Gloucester.”
While the professional game is booming nowadays, it was only taking hold when O’Connell was in school and he can see how its influence has filtered down into the school system since he’s left.
“Ard Scoil Rís have a fantastic gym and a lot of the guys that play rugby get to do weights before school and then they can get a bite to eat in the canteen before going to class whereas there wasn’t even a weights rooms or a canteen when I was there,” O’Connell tells us.
“Facilities have certainly improved and the professionalism has certainly improved. The internet has helped, as has the influence of professional rugby and the influence of professional players who are involved throughout the province with different schools.
“Mick O’Driscoll is currently coaching Pres Cork and Mike Prendergast helps out in Ard Scoil Rís, not with the Senior Cup team but with the younger lads, the idea being that he helps prepare them for Senior Cup level. There are an awful lot of influences there, which can only make things better for the schools system overall.”
Like many schools in Munster, Ard Scoil Rís have benefitted from the more professional approach at second level, although the strong hurling tradition in the college means that they often play second fiddle to the more established rugby colleges. Ahead of a huge meeting with Munchin’s this Thursday, however, O’Connell reckons that they shouldn’t be ruled out of the reckoning this year.
“Rugby in the school is kind of a mixed bag; the school is based on the Clare side of Limerick so we tend to get a lot of Clare guys and a lot of hurlers coming into the school,” he says.
“Rugby tends to go in cycles, it can be very strong and then it can fade a little before coming good again.
“They seem to have a strong team this year though and they’re playing Munchin’s this week. Munchin’s obviously have a big tradition but I’d say Ard Scoil Rís will fancy themselves and will give it a good shot.
If words from the great man himself don’t motivate the Ard Scoil Rís lads, we don’t know what will. Let’s hope for their sake, that the ref doesn’t decide to disallow five tries this time around.