In a match that bore eerie resemblances to last year’s final against Blackrock, the Clongowes SCT almost pulled off one of the great escapes of this (or any other sporting) competition. Trailing by 22 points with a mere 12 minutes remaining on the clock the players contrived to score three tries in nine minutes to bring the game down to the wire and give their hard pressed supporters a fleeting glimpse of victory. Richard McElwee calls it as he saw it…
“In the words of Michael Jordan, the most famous basketballer that ever lived:
‘I can accept failure; everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.’
This Clongowes team cannot be accused of that.”
Fr. Leonard Moloney SJ
The 53rd minute in Donnybrook was a cold and miserable place. As Daniel McCaffrey emerged from the tail of a Belvedere maul to put four scores between his side and Clongowes, many neutrals declared: “Game. Set. Match,” and duly ambled out the turnstiles. Few could blame them given that many of those that they left behind resembled an ashen-faced congregation at a wake-house lamenting the downfall of their heroes. Shock, fused with despair, permeated through the stands while over all hung an air of anticlimax – not so much because the fight seemed to have ended so early, but because the front-runners for the 2015 Senior Cup looked so unlike the side that had navigated this path.
It was proving to be a disconcerting occasion for Noel McNamara and his troops. With St. Michael’s and Blackrock College out of the picture, most media outlets assumed that the silverware would be heading to Clane. However, Belvedere were far from lambs to the slaughter – indeed they were more like the wolf pack to which their Jesuit brethren are often compared. Within moments of the kick-off it was obvious that Phil Werahiko had his men finely primed for battle. A big hit and turnover on Rowan Osborne buoyed the underdog and served to signal their intent. Clongowes meanwhile looked vulnerable under fire with inaccuracies from both the boot and touch adding to their growing unease.
Although Clongowes were lucky to escape an early cross-field attempt, Belvedere were knocking hard on the door as the defence was repeatedly caught in two minds – and sometimes in three. Then, what began as an early storm in a thimble soon grew up into a hurricane as Belvedere registered their just rewards on the scoreboard when the ball was finally worked out to Oscair McGrath following an overthrow at the lineout (7-0, 8mins). Moments later they were back, with the impressive Conor Jennings pouncing on a loose ball in the Clongowes ’22 to put further daylight between the sides (12-0, 11mins). Jennings subsequently added a penalty to make it 15-0 at the break.
One wondered what McNamara would say to his charges as they ran for cover in the security of the dressing room. Belvedere were on top in every facet of the game, showing greater intensity and hunger in all that they did. Allied to the litany of unforced errors on Clongowes’ part, it could be said that the Great Denmark Street school were unlucky not to have come away with more. As they regrouped at the Bective end, one hoped that the likes of John Molony, Will Connors and Rowan Osborne had some answer to their plight – or was he stationed on the sideline?
Colm Mulcahy cut a desolate figure as he watched his comrades succumb to the early Belvo’ onslaught. Usually a pillar of solidity in the Clongowes centre, Mulcahy was ruled out of this fixture with a serious knee injury. Although James Lappin has been a revelation since switching off his wing to fill the void, few sides could carry the loss of a vice-captain who already had five tries to his name in the competition.
Upon the restart it was clear to all that Clongowes needed to assert themselves on the fixture or risk being blown away. Strong carries by Molony and Sean McCrohan were encouraging but any positivity was quickly negated when Belvedere fullback Eoin Cleere put James McKeon in at the corner on 42 minutes (20-0). Although a well-worked Donal Mongey try shortly afterwards offered Clongowes a glimmer of hope, another frown from the gods saw McCaffrey dot down in front of an ecstatic Belvedere support. Jennings’ conversion from an acute angle rubbed salt into Clongowes’ gaping wounds (27-5, 53mins).
Paradoxically, with 17 minutes left on the clock, Clongowes were released from the shackles of expectation and finally began to reveal themselves to a dissipating audience. Performing over the apparent safety net of a 22-point differential, Belvedere’s hero became a villain of sorts as McCaffrey failed to resist the temptation of the sin-bin for persistent infringements. Clongowes had to capitalise and did so through Rowan Osborne who scythed through the Belvedere defence with the coolness of a professional gunfighter. Conor Murray’s trusty left boot added the extras with a single step and swing (27-12).
Suddenly Clongowes were playing rugby as though learned from the pages of schoolboy fiction. At almost every given opportunity they exploited breaches in the Belvedere wall. Passes went to hand, the whistle shrilled no more and purple voices rallied with cries of “Oh Clongowes College!” Yet even when John Molony bundled over the line (converted by Murray), few considered it to be anything more than a consolation score (27-19, 61mins).
It was only when James Lappin turned on the gas for a 70 yard dash to the posts following a clever intercept that the impossible dream looked like it might have tangible merit. Grimacing as he stretched his legs to avoid the despairing clutches of the opposition, Lappin’s pure joy upon leaving a floundering pursuit in his wake will be one of the images of this campaign. Again Murray slotted the conversion.
At 27-26 onlookers turned to each other in disbelief, while Werahiko turned away – was this actually happening? Inconceivable just 10 minutes previously, Clongowes were now on the brink of the greatest comeback in the history of the schools game. “Now that is what I call bouncebackability!” roared Mr. Bowen prompting a host of journalists in his vicinity to reach for their dictionaries. A harrowing day was transforming itself into something quite extraordinary.
Speaking to the Clongowes community later on Tuesday evening, Mr. Noel McNamara was defiant in his assessment of the game: “I don’t believe that we were beaten today,” he declared, “we simply ran out of time.” Sure enough from the kick off Belvedere summoned enough energy to contain Clongowes in their own half. Faced by the prospect of giving up critical possession a panicked Clongowes were ultimately penalised and Belvedere stubbornly played down the clock. With ball in Clongowes hands, anything was possible – and Belvedere knew it.
In many ways it would have been harsh had Belvedere not secured their passage to the RDS following their display over the majority of this contest. But stranger things have happened. Indeed such is the undoubted quality of the CWC SCT 2015 that had they another few minutes in the locker it might not have been so strange at all…
Mr Richard McElwee