Belief and work rate are key ingredients to West Cork’s school’s success
BY DENIS HURLEY
IN three weeks’ time, Bandon Grammar School will have its biggest rugby day.
Wins over Limerick’s Castletroy College and St Munchin’s College have propelled the West Cork school into the semi-finals of the Clayton Hotel Munster Schools Senior Cup for the first time, where the competition’s most successful institution, Presentation Brothers College of Cork city, will provide the opposition in Musgrave Park.
It hasn’t just been an overnight success, it must be said. Last year, Munchin’s were also seen off in the first round before a stronger Pres outfit recorded a 39-10 victory in the last eight. At the time, head coach Denis Collins was quoted in these pages expressing hope for the 2016-17 campaign, given that so many of the team would be available again.
‘We’d be hopeful, if we can learn the lessons from this year,’ he said exactly a year ago.
‘For us as a school, it was the first time playing at A-level, so it’s a learning curve all the time.’
Twelve months on, and Collins is more than pleased with how things have panned out in the interim.
‘What was a big help was that, last year we got to the final of the Bowen Shield, the competition between the senior and junior cups, as we had quite a young senior team. We lost to CBC but it definitely helped to bring the lads along,’ he said.
‘They’re definitely stronger this year. We knew that there was great potential in the team but obviously it’s one thing to have that potential and then something totally different to try to realise it.’
Collins has been in situ for about eight years, he estimates. His brother James is also in the set-up, dealing with backs coaching, but the head coach points out that the ‘backroom team has really expanded’.
James is now assisted with the backs by Philip Murphy, a native Bandonian who teaches in the school and Régis Sonnes, a Frenchman who divides his time between the Grammar and the Bandon RFC junior side, is the forwards coach.
Two more teachers, Carbery Rangers footballer Brian Shanahan and Adam Doyle, take charge of strength and conditioning with Adam Keane the physio.
As the size of the operation has grown, so too have Bandon’s ability and ambition.
‘There were a lot of years we qualified through the B-school route,’ Collins says, ‘we were there or thereabouts and this year we pushed on.
‘I’ve been here eight years now and the school won the Mungret Cup in six years, I think, so we were playing in the first round of the senior cup, but getting the win was the big thing.
‘Two years ago, the school won the Munster Rugby School of The Year Award, there were good performances in the senior and junior cups so you could see that things were progressing, that we were heading towards becoming an A-school.’
Of the players who began the win over St Munchin’s at Old Chapel last Thursday, eight had featured in the loss to Pres in Musgrave last year – captain of that side, and Bandon’s try-scorer, was Baltimore’s Gavin Coombes, who has featured for the Munster A side this year.
Munster star, and former Dohenys and Cork hurler, Darren Sweetnam is another alumnus, and if he continues the leaps made before injury this season, he may in time challenge Graham Norton and Conor Hourihane for the title of ‘most famous past pupil’.
It’s not just about nurturing the stars, though, as an ethos of development of players at all skill levels pervades.
‘After that game against Pres, I said that we’d learn from it and I think we have,’ Collins says.
‘That’s the motto we try to have with everything, really, learning from each experience.
‘From a school point of view, what we focus on is developing the players to fulfil their potential whether that’s to go all the way to the professional game or just be a club player.
‘You see Darren Sweetnam and the season he has had with Munster, he might have an Ireland cap now too but for injury. Gavin Coombes is another who is making great progress.
‘It’s a great boost for lads to see that this is what can be achieved, it’s a boost for rugby all over West Cork.’
It’s a testament to the strength of character of the side that they weren’t fazed by last week. Playing at home, in front of a large crowd, with a history waiting to be made – it was a mix of the kind of factors which could have led to a lesser team freezing.
With the wind at their backs, Bandon did fall 3-0 behind early on but tries from James French and Seán Hudson, both converted by the latter, who plays at full-back, left them well in control before a Hudson penalty gave them a 14-point half-time lead.
An onslaught from Munchin’s was expected and it arrived, but an incredibly disciplined defensive performance from Bandon meant that it wasn’t until the very end that a try was coughed up, with no time for the visitors to try to mount any other challenge.
A 17-13 full-time winning margin didn’t really do justice to Bandon’s superiority but the key thing was that they were in the semi-finals. If they are to continue their wonderful run, they will have to up things another few notches at the end of the month against Pres.
With Ardscoil Rís – well beaten by Pres in the first round and so prevented from palyign them in the last four – and Glenstal Abbey the other two sides left, the Mardyke school are the favourites, but Collins isn’t fazed by the task at hand.
‘We’ve always said that we have the utmost respect for whoever we’re playing,’ he says.
‘We have very good players and if we play to our best, there is enough ability there that we don’t have to fear anybody.
‘Belief and work rate are the key ingredients.’
The Bandon Grammar panel against St Munchin’s was as follows: Seán Hudson, Victor Lovell, Ben Gur, Ethan Greene, Jan Donnelly, Evan Palmer, Jack Crowley, James French, Travis Coomey, Ashley Deane, Conor Scully, Jason Bradfield, Niall Beamish, Robin Stokes, Colin Deane, Paul Jackson, Michael Archer, Alex O’Connor, David Ogden, Joshua Brady, Paul Jackson, Billy Hayes, Soren Minihane, Harry Hall, Ben Hodgins and Thomas Beare.