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'I was in the Lansdowne Road dressing room getting sick I was so pumped for the game'

Ian Keatley remembers the last time Belvedere and Blackrock met in the Leinster Senior Schools Cup final as the schools prepare to renew their rivalry at the RDS on St Patrick’s Day.

IAN KEATLEY RECALLS the day vividly. How could he not? Even now, as a Munster centurion and five-time capped Irish international, it still ranks as one of his proudest on a rugby field.

Thirty-three years. History. Triumph. Black and white. Only in God. Belvedere.

Belvedere fans The Belvedere team sing the school anthem in front of their supporters. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It was the be-all and end-all,” he reflects. “You’ve no idea how much it means to absolutely everybody; teachers, pupils, past pupils, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“You’re going through school from first year up, you’re constantly looking up at the older guys and that’s all you ever want to do. You want to be on the SCT team and win the Senior Cup.”

St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2005.

Blackrock were the favourites that day. They were the defending champions and had a special team, one which was widely-expected to deliver title number 65 for the school. Luke Fitzgerald was the standout player, but Ian Madigan (a fourth year at the time), Niall Morris, Vas Artemiev, Dave Moore, Cian Culleton, Paul Ryan and Zach Farvivarz — all of whom would turn professional — were all prodigious talents.

Belvedere, without a Senior Cup crown since 1972, had beaten St Andrew’s, Gonzaga and St Mary’s en route to the final but their form had been inconsistent throughout the year and this was their first appearance in the showpiece for three years.

“We were such underdogs,” Keatley tells The42. “We’d done okay, won a few games but had lost a good few games too. We’d lost to ‘Rock by a good bit that year, I can’t remember the points but they were seen as an unbelievable team. Back then they were all big names and we weren’t.

“We weren’t talked about or recognised but that was the great thing about our team. We didn’t see ourselves as superstars or anything, we just saw ourselves as a really good team who worked hard for each other.”

Keatley was the out-half with Paul O’Donoghue, the former Connacht and Leinster scrum-half, operating inside him at nine. Eoin O’Malley was the key figure in midfield and the pack was built around Cian Healy, captain Robert Carson and Cathal Pendred, who would go on to make a name for himself in Mixed Martial Arts.

Ian Keatley Keatley kicks a penalty during the 2005 final. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“There was this weird belief, and I don’t know where it came from because as I said we hadn’t done that well that season,” he continues. “Andy Kenny and Steve Gibbons brought in sports psychologists in the build-up to the final which was just unheard of.

“They talked about that pressure of not winning the Cup in 33 years and how to handle that pressure. It was just unheard of in schools rugby but we just had that belief going into it, our paths had been set out and it just kind of worked out for us that year.”

As was tradition, the players were introduced to the rest of the school on the morning of the final before been given a send-off from Great Denmark Street as they headed across the Liffey towards the old Lansdowne Road.

For 30 young guys, it was the biggest day of their fledgling careers and, for many, it would be the pinnacle. The sense of occasion was huge.

“We have an Astroturf on the roof and we went up there to run through a few plays,” Keatley recalls. “All the mums used to come in and cook us our pre-match meal and I remember going into the gym in front of the whole school. Everyone was wearing their jerseys and it hit you then.

We got on the bus and because of the parade in town, we got a police escort to the stadium. It was just unheard of and that build-up for 17 and 18-year-olds was just incredible.

“We’d always put the speech from ‘Any Given Sunday’ on when we were on the bus for our Cup games. We had that playing and actually Rassie [Erasmus] played that for us leading into the Cardiff game recently. I hadn’t heard it in a while and it does touch a nerve or soft spot. I always think about that day when I hear it, even though it’s 12 years ago now.”

2.55pm. Five minutes until kick-off.

All the build-up, all the talk, all the pre-match traditions and formalities are nearly complete. 15,000 people, including family and friends, are waiting outside in anticipation. The last six months have culminated in this moment; the Leinster Senior Schools Cup final.

A general view of a lineout A crowd of 15,000 were in attendance for the 2005 final. Source: ©INPHO

Deep down inside Lansdowne Road’s West Stand, under the Dart line, the teams wait to be called from the dressing rooms. It’s the first year the showpiece event of the Schools Rugby calendar is live on TV, with Setanta Sport carrying coverage.

“We were ready to come out,” Keatley explains. “You could hear the train going over above and I remember we were told to go back in for another five minutes because of TV timings.

“We were in the changing room, I remember most of us were so pumped and ready to go out that we were climbing up the walls. The adrenaline and nerves were flowing and I remember I was sick because I had built myself up so much. I started getting sick so the lads called me Willie Beamen from ‘Any Given Sunday’ after because he always gets sick before he goes out to play.

We were just raring to go and I remember my first kick off, I was trying to just kick it long and I absolutely just booted the ball into the stand. That was just pure adrenaline, I was just so pumped up for the game and I remember people after the match telling me that it was an interesting tactic kicking the ball straight out just to get a scrum so you could go up against them straight away but I was like ‘jeez I wasn’t thinking that way at all, it was just so much adrenaline built up.’”

Keatley settled into the game then and he soon found his rhythm. Twelve minutes into the contest, he executed a cross-field kick to perfection for winger Peter Woods to gather and go over.

He then added a sweetly-struck penalty and a sublime drop goal, off his weaker left foot, to stretch Belvo’s lead to 16-3 and bring them within touching distance of a historic victory.

“I had tried a few drop goals before on the right and missed,” Keatley admits. “Ollie Campbell said to me throughout the year to practise on both feet so I’d go into the gym nearly every day in school practising drop goals into the net. Left foot, right foot.

Eoin Fleck of Blackrock tackled by Eoin O'Malley of Belvedere Eoin Fleck of Blackrock tackled by Eoin O'Malley. Source: ©INPHO

“I missed a few with my right but got one with my left and that was a nice little settler for us. I haven’t even watched it that much since then but the fact I remember it so clearly just shows you it was such a historic day for a lot of people in that school.”

Blackrock set-up a grandstand finish but Belvo, backed by a sea of black and white, held on for a deserved victory to end that 33-year wait for the Senior Cup to return back to the Northside.

“Back then it was the be-all and end-all. I didn’t make our Junior Cup team, I was sub and I remember saying to one of my friends who was slagging me, I remember saying to him ‘bet you I will be on the SCT in fifth year’ and only me and him remember that.

“He was actually down for my 100th cap down in Munster, he came down to that match, and he said it to me ‘do you remember when I said that to you on the bus? It’s crazy, your career has pretty much kicked on from that day’ and that’s kind of true.

“It means the world because you’re playing with your friends and guys you’ve grown up with. You’re with each other every day, it’s all you talk about. We were in night study when the fixtures came out and everyone in school, all the younger years are looking up to you going ‘Best of luck Keatley in the final’.

“Your parents, you’ve no idea how much it means to them. The mothers came in for us every match and cooked the pre-match meal and would have food for us after the match back in the school. All the travelling they do bringing us to training, the whole family is involved. Wishing you luck, aunts and uncles going to games. You’re almost like a mini-superstar back then, you’re in that bubble in that school and it’s a big deal. All the teachers, some let you off homework so you can concentrate on the game. You wouldn’t believe it and I’m sure it’s the same in every school.”

Arguably the greatest-ever team to come from Belvedere, Robert Carson led his players up the steps of the West Stand to lift the trophy before their triumphant return back across the city to the steps of Belvedere House.

Captain Robert Carson Belvo captain Robert Carson lifts the trophy. Source: ©INPHO

“It was Paddy’s Day so town was packed and we got to the bottom of Grafton Street and got stuck,” Keatley adds. “We could see O’Connell Bridge and it was just a sea of black and white. There must have been thousands of pupils and past pupils on the bridge there to welcome us back across with the cup.

One of the gards came up to the bus and asked were they all there for us because they were causing serious traffic jams. So we all got off the bus and walked across the Liffey but couldn’t get back on because it was just so manic so we walked the rest of the way.

“I can remember the pictures, there were just people everywhere for us. Thousands and thousands of people but there was just this path for us to walk with the cup. I remember getting to the top of Great Denmark Street and looking back down and just thinking ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’

“That was the best version of the school anthem we’ve ever sung and I know it’s cheesy but it was just an incredible feeling. To do it with guys you’ve spent so much of your life with. It’s just special.”

2005 Leinster Senior Schools Cup final

Blackrock College 10-16 Belvedere College

Blackrock College: N Morris; R Keaveney (J Coleman 56′), L Fitzgerald, F Moran (E Fleck 35)’, V Artemiev; I Madigan, D Moore; C Culleton, E Mullen (E Baker blood inj 44-51), E O Cuilleanain; P Ryan, B Cawley (D O’Connor 57′); Z Farivarz, M Lynch, D O’Reilly (captain).

Belvedere College: C Murphy; P Woods, E O’Malley, B Moran, L Power; I Keatley, P O’Donohoe; M Cuddy, C Healy, E Byrne; C Pendred, G O’Rourke; R Fitzgerald, R Carson (captain) (D Synnott 47′), D Gilchrist.

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