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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 16 December, 2019
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Landmark day for Gonzaga a long time in the making

The Ranelagh school face the might of St Michael’s in their first Leinster Senior Cup final this afternoon.

TO BREAK DOWN a barrier and be the first of an ilk to achieve a feat, there are the obvious challenges involved with scaling the height and chipping away at deeply ingrained obstacles of psychology and perception.

Then there is the mountain of unseen, underappreciated work laid deep behind the scenes.

The iceberg principle.

Gonzaga's supporters celebrate their team scoring try 'Zaga fans in the stands for the quarter-final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

69 years in existence, Gonzaga College made history 12 days ago, when a typically gutsy and tactically flexible performance brought them victory over Clongowes Wood and a first-ever appearance in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup final.

Having battled beyond the eight-time champion big boys from Kildare, from 2pm this afternoon they will face down favourites St Michael’s College, who themselves made a breakthrough to lift their first crown in 2007 and have since developed exceptional structures to earn a reputation as the leading nursery for Leinster rugby talent.

Whatever the low-lying scoreboard in the RDS might read come full-time this afternoon, it will have been a day well worth celebrating for anyone connected with Gonzaga.

Serious talent has walked down Sandford Close and through Gonzaga’s grounds down the years, with John Cooney and Matt Healy (both scrum-halves in their schooldays) the latest to earn international caps, but their history of truncated Cup runs has meant the green jerseys were rarely a source of fear for opposition schools. However, by the time this year’s tournament rolled around, there was no lack of respect for the rugby in Ranelagh after they won two of the last three league campaigns.

Henry Godson and Fergus O hOisin celebrate at the final whistle Pain and gain: Gonzaga celebrate the win over Clongowes. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

As head coach, reluctant though he is to attach the title to himself, Declan Fassbender rails at the notion of today’s final being the product of a three-year-long effort. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. He looks back to the men who laid the foundations: current UCD director of rugby Bobby Byrne, but most crucially Noel McCarthy, who passed away in September.

“He might be surprised to find I’m saying nice things about him,” Fassbender tells The42 with a laugh.

Noel was my teacher, so we weren’t always the best of friends, but there’s no reason for the school to be a rugby school only that Noel McCarthy made it his business to push things on.

“Bobby Byrne would have coached me too and brought a huge amount. We’re all reaping the dividends of their hard work over a long period of time.”

Alongside the head coach, the backroom team of Martin Fenlon, James Kenny, Stephen McVeigh, Ken Murray, Ollie O’Brien, Dr Peter Meagher, Conor Gavin and Chris Coburn  all deserve enormous credit and clearly work with a mission to ensure their players enjoy playing. This afternoon might well deliver silverware, but the value system has already proven a rewarding one.

“We don’t care if we win or lose a game, if we understand that we’re continuing to do our best, that makes it successful,” says Fassbender.

“As much as we work very hard, it’s important to remember; if success is simply winning, there are only 23 lads who can be successful. Leinster rugby isn’t about that, it’s about people playing sport.

“(Winning) is not why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because it’s young lads playing as friends, trying to be good and seeing what luck we get along the way.”

Henry Godson celebrates at the final whistle Henry Godson celebrates. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Luck has been ridden at times, but it has been created with plenty of spadework by ‘Zaga.

The class of 2019 come to their first final on the back of a helter-skelter cup run in which they have edged three utterly riveting games. Each match seeming to bring a stand-out individual performance on top of an impressively cohesive collective effort and outright refusal to lose.

A first-round clash with Castleknock saw the mettle seriously tested as the northsiders rallied from 16-7 down at the interval to lead 16-17 with the match in the melting pot. While momentum ebbed and flowed, captain Jack Barry – skipper of Leinster’s victorious U18 side last summer – remained a constant as he relentlessly carried and tackled to ensure Harry Colbert and Karl Morgan were given room to create a try for Fergus O’hOisin in between two mauled tries grounded by Barry.

Jack Barry in a team huddle Jack Barry in a huddle with his team during the win over Terenure. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The quarter-final clash with Terenure brought a prime example of scrum-half Jack Connolly’s skill-set and his ability to target space in the back-field. The game-managing 9′s goal-kicking coupled with second row Jack Coolican’s efforts at the breakdown paved the way for a three-try win.

Loosehead Henry Godson grounded the last try of that win and has been a powerful carrying presence through all three rounds so far, but his semi-final display against Clongowes won’t be easily shaken from memory as he forced his way over the try-line three times to bring about a landmark 22-19 win over a noticeably larger pack.

Their feats are all the more impressive when you notice the lack of green replacements sent forth from the bench. In tight contests, they have made continuity work in their favour as the majority of the starting line-up have been allowed dig and think their way around problems to earn a result.

While there ought to be a festive feel for ‘Zaga alumni today, there is also a tinge of sadness about the 70 minutes ahead for the current squad. It marks their final chance to play as a group. After that, it will be full steam ahead to the leaving cert, but the pivotal points of this year’s Senior Cup will be etched in their memory for a long time to come.

“I do think one of the bad things about St Patrick’s day is that it’s our last game,” says Fassbender, “we’re really enjoying it and the lads are loving spending time and playing rugby together.

“I wish Emmet MacMahon and Andy Skehan (St Michael’s head coach and director of rugby) all the best. But it’s nothing to do with them, it’s about Mark Hernan and his mates, Jack Barry and his mates.

“It’ll be a great day.”

Gonzaga College

15. Conor Hennessy
14. Fergus Ó hOisín
13. Frank O’Grady
12. Karl Morgan
11. Brian Barron
10. Harry Colbert
9. Jack Connolly

1. Henry Godson
2. Hugo Fitzgerald
3. Ronan Shaw
4. Liam Tyrell
5. Jack Coolican
6. Colm Kirby Ó Briain
7. Tom Cullen
8. Jack Barry (Captain)

Replacements

16. Luke Hammond
17. George Kenny
18. Sean Grimley
19. Oscar Rogers
20. Arthur Henry
21. Max Colgan
22. JJ Walsh
23. Simon Wilson

St Michael’s College

15. Andrew Smith
14. Eddie Kelly
13. Chris Cosgrave
12. Simon O’Kelly
11. Mark O’Brien
10. Niall Carroll
9. Robert Gilsenan

1. Jack Boyle
2. Lee Barron
3. Fionn Finlay
4. Stephen Woods
5. John Fish
6. Jack Guinane
7. Mark Hernan (Captain)
8. Will Hickey

Replacements

16. Joey Boland
17. Ben Victory
18. James Power
19. Luke Fehily
20. Conor Booth
21. Jeffrey Woods
22. Hugo McWade
23. Rohan van der Akker

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Sean Farrell

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