Leinster Schools Cups – The Referees Favourite time of year.
The first thing most referees look forward to after the Christmas period is the Bank of Ireland sponsored Leinster Schools Senior and Junior Challenge Cups. The draw in December kicks this off, but it is the selection of referees that is greatly anticipated.
Refereeing a schools cup game, be it on the great new surface in Donnybrook, the RDS, or any other club in Leinster is one of the highlights or any referees career. Not every referee gets to do one so being selected makes it a bit more special. Some referees may never have played to that level in schools, some may not have played rugby in schools at all and some are reliving past glories on the D4 pitch. Whilst any schools cup game is special for the players, it is equally special for the referee. Some referees may never be lucky enough to referee a game in front of a big crowd again, others may never referee on TV again, so it is an opportunity to be cherished.
I’ve been lucky enough to referee a few schools cups games both in Donnybrook, on TV and towards the later stages of the competition. These are games I always look back with fond memories. Some went better than others, I made some mistakes, but I thoroughly enjoyed every single one of them and refereed some great players who have moved into the Leinster setup such as Jerry Sexton, Ian Madigan, Jack Conin and John Cooney to name but a few.
One of my first memories that will stick with me will be my first venture onto the Lansdowne Road pitch in 2006 where I touch judged the semi-final between Blackrock and Belvedere with Dudley Philips, where Donal Courtney was in the middle. As we left the dressing rooms the pitch was covered in snow and it was snowing heavily. Dudley and I made the wrong decision to wear shorts. It was a super game and Lansdowne was packed.
Needless to say I can’t remember who won but I have great memories of the day. It is not just me that has great memories. I caught up with a few referees over the last few weeks and asked them about their memories of schools cup games.
Alain Rolland a former Blackrock College student has refereed on the biggest stage of all but still has great memories of his involvement “It’s been a while since I did one but I have great memories from doing some in Donnybrook. There is nothing like the commitment from both the teams and the supporters and the signing from the stands is always fantastic! I refereed Belvo v Marys in the final a few years back in the snow on Paddy’s Day but I can’t remember the year. It was one of the coldest matches I have ever done and I don’t know how the boys played as well as they did.”
Dudley Philips is a member of St Mary’s College RFC and an international referee, refereed the 2015 final. Sadly he has seen his alma mater lose more than they have won. “No matter the venue, the weather or the teams I always found a Leinster Schools Cup match a great experience. With fanatical supporters shouting on their school mates for the entire 70 minutes each match could have been a cup final. The atmosphere experienced in Donnybrook on a big match day is something only a small percentage of players get to experience and having experienced this as both referee and player I consider myself very fortunate. Season 2008/2009 offered me the chance to referee the SCT final when Blackrock and Terenure met in a competitive match and a great advert for the game. As I meet colleagues from around the country they are in awe of the Leinster competition and admire the quality of the teams and support every team gets.”
David Keane, a former Clongowes boy, and international 7’s referee also has great memories. He was one of the youngest referees to referee a schools cup final. “I did the final in 2003 between St Mary’s and Terenure. It was an epic derby battle which Terenure won 3-0 and it was played in the Old Lansdowne Road. The experience of games like these will live long in the memory. It is an invaluable experience for any referee lucky enough to be given the honour of officiating at this show piece.”
Donal Courtney ERC Match Officials Performance Manager, lives and breathes refereeing and is hoping his own son lifts the cup this season. “I always loved refereeing schools rugby during my career and that went for schools friendlies on a Saturday morning to the cut and thrust of the schools cup during February and March. Schools rugby for me is a great way to expose young referees to the game of rugby given the pace that it is played at and the generally very high skill levels displayed by the players. I still referee some schools games and still really enjoy the buzz.
Memories-I have two definite memories that standout:
First “big” schools game was the quarter final game in 1996 between the Rock dream team and St Michaels with one BOD playing at 9 for the injured Ciaran Scally and Leo Cullen and Bob Casey! What a game. People tend to forget that while the games are massive for the boys they are also massive for the guy in the middle. Donnybrook in front of thousands of screaming school boys and their parents-a daunting environment for your first “big” one! But those are the days you wish for as a referee and the days you learn how to manage yourself in those pressurised environments. I was lucky enough to be appointed to the final in 2001 between Terenure and Rock. While I achieved a lot in my refereeing career that day is a standout memory. A huge crowd in Lansdowne Road. I remember saying to myself driving to the game “let the boys play”. The key thing for me in refereeing schools rugby is finding the balance between management and sanction. They are big days for the boys and some of their actions on the day can be put down to sheer anxiousness. It’s important that we as referees find that right balance. Anyway I awarded a penalty kick to Terenure almost on the half way line which David McAllister kicked to win the game 21-19. The irony of it was that he had missed a kick to win the Cup the previous year. Interestingly I met the player from Rock that I penalised some years later and he said to me maybe I should have listened to you after the fourth time you shouted “roll away Rock 7”!!
In summary-refereeing schools rugby-a hugely important and enjoyable part of my refereeing career.
So there you go. We all know what a big occasion schools cups are for the players but also the referees. Many happy memories that will last a lifetime.
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