Leinster's Byrne and Molony go back to school to help Michael's reign again

Emmet MacMahon’s side handled the weight of expectation to lift their third Leinster Senior Schools Cup on Sunday.

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS 

YOU COULD ALMOST feel the sense of relief that overflowed from the stands yesterday afternoon as St Michael’s captain Mark Hernan followed in the footsteps of Conor Cleary and Dan Leavy by lifting the Leinster Senior Schools Cup.

But, in truth, Emmet MacMahon’s side left few in doubt as they produced a powerful and clinical display to swat aside the challenge of a spirited Gonzaga outfit and claim their third Senior Cup crown, and first in seven years. 

Mark Hernan lifts the trophy St Michael's captain Mark Hernan lifts the Leinster Senior Schools Cup. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

After a series of near misses, disappointments and heartbreak, this was a sweet victory for Michael’s as they channelled the anguish of 12 months ago into conjuring the complete campaign from start to finish.

Having knocked holders Blackrock College and Belvedere out in earlier rounds, there was little room for argument as to who the deserving champions were, and their impressive showing at the RDS on St Patrick’s Day emphatically confirmed that.

By scoring four tries, the Ailesbury Road school had victory wrapped up heading into the final quarter and while the final scoreline — 28-5 — may have been a touch harsh on Gonzaga in their first appearance in the blue-riband event, it was nothing more than an impressive Michael’s side deserved.

Their power game was phenomenal, a key feature of their successful campaign, with a hard-working forward pack consistently making yards in the tackle and providing quick ball for scrum-half Rob Gilsenan to feed a potent backline.

Loosehead prop Jack Boyle was outstanding throughout and his brace of first-half tries set Michael’s on their way, before rampaging hooker Lee Barron and the excellent Gilsenan completed the job by crossing in the second half.

Gilsenan’s score, as Michael’s broke from deep, was a moment of outstanding quality as fullback Andrew Smith offloaded audaciously for winger Eddie Kelly to show his pace down the right, and then feed his supporting scrum-half on the inside line.

Remarkably, thirteen of the starting team have represented Leinster schools, while nine of them will be back next year to defend their crown in an ominous sign for the rest of the competition.

“Over the moon, what a cup run,” head coach MacMahon exhaled afterwards. “There’s just utter relief down in the changing room. Those lads have been through a lot, all of them.

“Whether they lost a Junior Cup final or were involved last year when we were beaten in the semi-final by Belvedere. I remember talking to some of them last year, asking them ‘How are you going to come back from that?’ when we were in control of the semi-final and lost it.

“But the lads were on a mission all year just to set things right and I’m just so proud of them, every one of them.”

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There were standout performers in blue all over the park. Boyle was man-of-the-match for his big contributions, not only on the scoreboard but in his capacity to break the gain-line consistently, while he was ably supported by Barron and number eight Will Hickey. The pack were all superb.

Rob Gilsenan runs in a try Rob Gilsenan breaks away for the fourth Michael's try. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

And then Gilsenan pulled the strings behind that, with centres Simon O’Kelly and Chris Cosgrave enjoying several bright moments, the latter faultless off the tee as he converted all four Michael’s tries. 

Inside centre Cosgrave had worked on his place-kicking with Ross Byrne, a Michael’s past pupil, in the weeks leading up to the final, while Ross Molony helped with lineout work.

MacMahon explained: “Ross Byrne was out with the lads the last couple of days, we had them out at the RDS just talking to Chris and Niall [Carroll] about how the wind works for kicking. Ross Molony has been in helping with the lineout, Dan Leavy does a bit but those two did quite a lot in the build-up.

“It’s a good thing that the lads have that. When I was growing up in school, we had Simon Keogh [to play professionally] and he was about the only one. The success of the school and the players who have gone before them has added a huge amount of pressure to the lads, but they deal with it really well.”

The big question is who will be the next talent to come off the Michael’s production line. On Sunday’s evidence, there’s no shortage of candidates. 

“Do the lads see the potential to become a professional player? Honestly, the lads are so driven to win a Senior Cup,” MacMahon, who was captain of the Michael’s SCT team in 2009 and 2010, says.

They’re in the gym every morning at 7.15 not because they want to be a pro, but because they want to win the Senior Cup. We’ve only done it twice before, and we’ve just done it for the third time.

With eight fifth years and a fourth year in the XV, MacMahon’s side will have an excellent chance of retaining their trophy in 2020, but he was quick to point out that they will lose the spine of this team in Smith, Gilsenan and Hernan among others.

“That’s going to be the challenge now to make sure we keep these lads as hungry as they were this year,” MacMahon added.

“I don’t think there’s any issue with it, because they’re very driven. Yes, we have a young team but if you look at our sixth-year players, they’re some of the best players to have gone through our school.”

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Ryan Bailey

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