Saturday 18 November 2017

Old school ties

Captains in English Premiership and Heineken Cup deciders all played in '96 Senior Cup final

Blackrock College beat Newbridge College in the final of the 1996 Leinster Schools Senior Cup on a miserably cold, wet and windy St Patrick's Day at Lansdowne Road.

Nothing unusual about that you might say, or the fact that it was the Blackrock College 'Dream Team', and the Williamstown outfit were completing a two in a row.

The reason for drifting back in time to that particular day is that a distinctive link has emerged connecting the '96 Schools Cup final with the Guinness Premiership final tomorrow and the Heineken Cup final in eight days' time: that Lansdowne Road game has produced the captains for these upcoming major finales.

Bob Casey, who played second row for 'Rock in '96 will lead out London Irish in Twickenham tomorrow, while Geordan Murphy, out-half for the Kildare school on that momentous day, will skipper the Leicester Tigers.

Injuries permitting (and that curiously enough includes the possibility of Martin Corry returning), Murphy should be taking the coin toss in Murrayfield with Leo Cullen, who was No 8 for Blackrock in '96; indeed they subsequently played together for two seasons at Welford Road before Cullen returned to Leinster a couple of years ago.

It is most unique to find the captains of two of the biggest club finals in world rugby played in the same schools cup final so many years ago.

The paths of all three Irish internationals consequently took on different routes, with Murphy being the only one to prosper at the highest level, but even with 62 caps there is a feeling that he is more appreciated with his adopted club than he has been in his own land.

Murphy, who also spent some time in Auckland, New Zealand, on a school exchange when in Newbridge, went on to play for Waterpark, as well as with his hometown club Naas before legendary Australian Rugby World Cup winning coach Bob Dwyer lured him to Welford Road where he has spent 12 successful seasons.

He has amassed five Premiership and a pair of Heineken Cup medals in that time, as well as touring with the 2005 Lions in New Zealand where he was capped at Test level.

Casey was introduced to the game in North Kildare before making the move to Blackrock; he played with Blackrock College Rugby Club on leaving school before coming to the attention of Leinster in 1999 when Mike Ruddock was in charge.

He played for three seasons with the Blues, including making his Heineken Cup debut in a memorable 27-20 victory over Leicester in Donnybrook in November '99.

A desire to play first-team football on a more regular basis (Malcolm O'Kelly and Leo Cullen had become the established Leinster second-row combination) led to his move to London Irish in the summer of 2002.

He quickly established himself with the Exiles, picking up both the supporters and players' Player of the Year awards in his first couple of seasons.

His leadership qualities have been to the fore in recent seasons and his partnership with Nick Kennedy is considered the best lineout combination in the Premiership.

Five Irish caps is scant reward for such a talented player but it is as much an indication of the strength in depth at lock forward in this country as anything else.

Leo Cullen has suffered likewise, with 19 caps accumulated since his first cap in New Zealand in 2002, especially as he would have hoped for more given that he had played at all levels for his country from schools upwards.

Cullen forged a highly successful partnership in the Leinster engine room with Malcolm O'Kelly before moving to Leicester in 2005 along with Shane Jennings.

He was highly-regarded during his two-year spell in the English Midlands and they reluctantly agreed to his return to his native province in 2007.

When he was selected as captain of Leinster at the start of the season in succession to Brian O'Driscoll, it would have come as little surprise to most rugby observers, given the fact that he had skippered at some stage every team that he had played for.

Another interesting twist is that two other adversaries in the Heineken Cup Final, Leinster's Jamie Heaslip and Johne Murphy from Leicester, have crossed paths at an even younger age.

They regularly played against each other at Minis level from Under-8 up to Under-12 levels; Heaslip for Naas and Murphy with Cill Dara, before going on to play JCT and SCT together with Newbridge College.

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