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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019

Failure not an option as Dubliner Skehan and The Bull's brother eye Munster schools glory

Glenstal Abbey are hoping to win the prestigious Munster Schools senior cup for the very first time.

Glenstal head coach Sean Skehan.
Glenstal head coach Sean Skehan.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

VISIT GLENSTAL ABBEY and it doesn’t take long to understand that this is a special place.

The school’s official website outlines how it’s part of a monastic community that builds its life around “the love of learning and the desire for God”, and how these values are a “lived reality” there.

It’s also a rugby hotbed and on St Patrick’s Day, Glenstal Abbey hope to be crowned Clayton Hotel Munster Schools senior cup champions for the very first time.

It’s their first final appearance since 1970, when Glenstal lost to Rockwell College, but hopes are high that the famine is about to end.

Still, they won’t get anything easy against Cork’s Presentation Brothers College in what’s been described as “the perfect final” by Glenstal head coach Sean Skehan.

“I went to St Michael’s myself in Dublin,” Skehan begins.

“I would have played and coached in St Michael’s and my brother, Andy, is director of rugby there now, and UCD head coach as well.”

Glenstal celebrate after the game Glenstal players celebrate their Munster semi-final victory over Ardscoil Rís. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Skehan completed his Higher Diploma in further education and secured a job at Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Murroe, Co. Limerick.

He’s been there for five years, dipping in and out of various teams in a coaching capacity before accepting the senior job on a full-time basis.

“The guys coaching the year before moved on for various reasons,” Skehan explains.

“It ended up being myself and Tom Hayes, who played with the Exeter Chiefs.

“He’s (former Ireland international) John’s brother. We knew it was a good panel of players, we’d seen them come up and play in two junior cup semi-finals between fourth and sixth year.”

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Glenstal’s path to the final began with a routine victory over St Clement’s, a win that set them up for a crack at 26-time competition winners Rockwell College, champions most recently in 2015.

“We didn’t play them in pre-season,” Skehan recalls. “They were going through the Bowen Shield at that stage but we would have been confident.

“We had a really good pre-season, winning the City Cup in Limerick, going through that undefeated.

“We played St Michael’s before Christmas, lost to them, and then we went over to play Nottingham Academy, and lost to them by a point. But we knew we’d be there or thereabouts.”

Tom Hayes Glenstal coach Tom Hayes is the brother of former Ireland international, John. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

On 1 February, Glenstal left Rockwell College scoreless and racked up 18 points themselves en route to a comfortable win.

It was a display that marked them out as potential winners and all seemed to be going according to plan in the semi-final against Ardscoil Rís, conquerors of last year’s winners CBC (Cork), when Glenstal stormed into a 21-0 lead. 

Glenstal had racked up that big advantage within 20 minutes but they wouldn’t score for the remainder of the game, as Ardscoil Rís cut the end margin to just a single point.

But on a continuing learning curve, Skehan believes that experience could yet prove vital, as Glenstal chase history.

“It would be a monumental moment for the school,” he says.

“And it would give a lot of confidence to the younger kids that they can compete with the bigger schools.

Source: Bank of Ireland/YouTube

“We’re confident in our rugby programme, that by the time we get them to senior, that they’re ready to compete and compete pretty well. But until you go out and win one, there’s always that bit of doubt in the back of kids’ minds.

“That was evident in the semi-final, when we imploded and let Ardscoil back into a game we shouldn’t have let them back into.

“But this team is experiencing that for the next generation and if they can win, those next generations can go with a lot more confidence.

“21-0 up, it looked like we might be able to finish it early enough but we were happy to get out of that.”

Now it’s Presentation Brothers College in the final and an interesting touchline sub-plot awaits.

PBC are coached by Paul Barr, and Skehan reveals: “Paul was my first year coach in St Michael’s, and he was a past pupil there as well.

Paul Barr Paul Barr is also a former Ireland U18 schools coach. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We kept in touch with what they (PBC) were doing, we knew if we were going to win the competition, we’d have to beat them. It’s great to get that game in the final. It’s the two teams who have shown the most form, the perfect final.”

Glenstal’s achievements have captured the imagination of the school itself, and the local area.

“It’s pretty incredible, they haven’t reached a final since 1970, 47 years between them,” notes Skehan.

“Hopefully that won’t be the case going forward. We’ve been in semi-finals and have had City Cup wins so the team is more reputable in terms of what can be achieved.

“The school’s gone crazy, bringing people in who might not necessarily have an interest (in rugby). To see the team on Paddy’s Day, on TV, and with all the media around it, it’s great. We haven’t got a lot of that in recent years but it hasn’t affected them (players) as badly as I thought it would. They’re extremely self-deprecating.”

Ben Healy, Luke Fitzgerald and Mark Fleming have been in Ireland camps at U18 level while George Downing is also a Munster schools player.

Four would be a bigger number than Glenstal would usually get, Skehan admits, and he’s buoyed by the presence of Jack Stafford and Colm Hogan, former students, on the Ireland U20 squad for the recent 6 Nations defeat against Wales.

“Bar St Michael’s, that’s the second biggest contribution, with Blackrock,” says Skehan.

“Both schools had two players.”

A remarkable achievement in itself when you consider that Glenstal are picking from a reasonably small pool.

“Not a huge amount,” says Skehan.

“In fifth and sixth year, maybe 35 players. At TY (Transition Year), you’re adding another ten to that. 45 at season start, now 32 or 33 since the Bowen Shield.”

And yet here they are, on the verge of history and with a degree of expectation resting on young shoulders.

“You can’t insulate them from it,” Skehan insists. They’re going to be nervous. They’re going to know it exists but the minute they got through the semi-final, they were extremely angry with their performance levels.

“They let Ardscoil back in and the talk in the changing room is that nothing’s achieved.

“The goal is to win the senior cup and if you come second, you’ve failed in that goal.

“People think it’s phenomenal to reach the final but if we don’t win, we’ll be incredibly disappointed. We’re up against a phenomenal PBC team, extremely well-coached and with good players but winning is the goal. That’s what we want to do.”

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