Leinster Boys Under 13 Section A League Final.
St Mary’s College RFC 25 Old Belvedere RFC 10
A few minutes after the final whistle sounded, the celebrations paused and it was time to acknowledge the valiant efforts of a very fine Old Belvedere RFC team. To their great credit they stood in a semi-circle, bowed but unbroken, awaiting their turn to acknowledge the victors. It was a poignant moment – that stark contrast between victory and defeat. Our captain Finn McEntee (voted so by his peers the previous Friday evening) delivered his prepared remarks (as always, the ould fella had every eventuality covered) and our coach Pete Smyth spoke eloquently about the respect we have for a great Belvo team who had pushed us like no other this year and had inflicted our only defeat in Kenilworth back on January 22nd.
It seemed appropriate for Pete to address Belvo on our behalf – after that January epic it was the tear-stained faces of Mary’s players that he had addressed with the priceless advice “you win or you learn”.
But finals are different – there is no second chance, no opportunity to correct or to atone. You win or you lose. Which prompted at least this attendee to consider what the implications might have been had the result been reversed. Would everything that had been endured and enjoyed and berated and celebrated over a truly memorable season now count for nought? No, it would not – and nor will it for Old Belvedere.
And yet. Victory validates. Victory vindicates. And it is great fecking fun.
The lead up to this final had taken on almost melodramatic dimensions and the relief at actually getting to the starting whistle on Sunday was tempered by the disappointment that our equally outstanding B Team did not get to play in their final on what would have been a Mary’s Super Sunday. But the B’s were there to support their teammates and the reverse will be the case when their big day arrives. This is as tight a playing unit as ever laced boots.
Special thanks must go to Landsdowne for accommodating this game so graciously. They are a fine club and we look forward to our upcoming meeting with them in the Cup semi-final.
Finals create narratives and some always seem more compelling than others. Luke Gavin surely came into the new Under 13 season with similar hopes and ambitions as his teammates. Maybe with a little more nerves as Luke can give the impression that he does not quite have the confidence that his talent and popularity deserves. After a strong start to the year, Luke suffered a concussion that set him back a little. He bounced back form that – but a broken arm creates a much bigger challenge for any player, never mind a twelve-year-old. Back he came again and he had secured his position on the wing as we approached the end of the season.
We were preparing for the final on March 26th when word came through late in the week that the final was now on the afternoon of April 2nd. When Luke would be on a flight out of Dublin with his family. Not to worry – credit card was called upon, arrangements were changed – some things are worth paying for. We get to last Saturday - looking at the downpours outside, waiting and wondering. Word comes through. DLSP is unplayable. All matches postponed. What next? We’ll see what we can do. Eventually it works out and Luke is there with his teammates the following morning in the shadow of the Aviva ready to go into battle. Twenty minutes have passed, 5-0 down and Mary’s really need to score. The ball comes to Luke on the wing. He goes to the outside but the unrelenting Belvo defence continues to hold firm. He cuts inside – sees the narrowest of gaps and touches down. Mary’s are back in the game. He has scored and he kicks on from there. A penny for Luke’s thoughts as he looked out the airplane window on the ascent into the darkening Dublin sky on Sunday evening, his dad by his side.
Those first twenty minutes did test the resilience of our lads. There were different theories as regards our unsteady start – ranging from over confidence to nerves on the big occasion. What cannot be discounted though was the quality and aggression of the opposition play. Barely five minutes in and an attempted Belvo penalty comes off the upright. A few scrambled phases later and Belvo are over in the corner for the try. Missed conversion.
For the next fifteen or so minutes Mary’s struggled to impose themselves on the game. It was a difficult watch at times but comfort was taken from the months of top class coaching and preparation that had been invested in these players, of the character they had shown in previous situations (remember Greystones at home) and in the belief that they would have benefitted more from Kenilworth.
It needed a big moment to spark them into life and as so often is the case, that moment was provided by our magnificent prince of a full back, Josh O’Dwyer. A high catch and strong carry with his team behind him set the tone for a change in fortunes.
There are teams within teams and two of these took us back into the game.
Our back row started to motor. Tom Murphy at 6 drove forward relentlessly with that bit of Munster dog in his DNA coming to the fore to enhance his rugby refinement when it was needed most. Adam Smyth at 7 carried strongly, his footwork in particular drawing special praise from his long-time coach Dave McEnroe (a decent judge of these matters it must be said). At Number 8, captain Finn McEntee demonstrated why his teammates had chosen him. He led the charge and willed his teammates forward – a chip off the old block.
With front foot momentum now being provided by the Mary’s forwards, Belvo paid particular attention in their defensive setup to Josh at full back. The memories of the havoc he had wreaked with ball in hand in our last encounter was fresh in their memories (as would be the case for most if not all of the teams we faced this year). This created just a little extra space in the midfield and our two centres took full advantage. Hugh Fitzgerald at 13 carried magnificently and his flat passes created gaps in the Belvo defence that had not been evident for most of the first half. Inside him at 12 he had the redoubtable Conor Rapple whose bravery shone through as always and he was a perfect foil for Hugh. Galway & Fermanagh in perfect harmony.
Luke’s score twenty minutes in was a momentum changer and Mary’s were slightly the better team for the last ten minutes of the first half. We tested the Belvo defence on their try line over an extended period and repeated infringements by them should possibly have drawn sanction from the referee. Eventually the lads settled for a Josh penalty. Mary’s eight to five up at half time. All still to play for.
In truth Mary’s largely controlled the second half – but it was not straightforward. Belvo may have paid special attention to Josh but class always tells and a minute into the second half Josh received the ball twenty metres from the Belvo line and took off on one of his arching runs to the corner. Not many players of this age could make it to the line in that situation, but with Josh it was almost a foregone conclusion. He is a special talent. As with Mary’s first try, Josh failed with the conversion, but both kicks were hugging the touchline and they were two terrific efforts.
Two score lead. A bit of breathing space? Not a bit of it. Back came Belvo. Ten minutes into the second half the ball went loose on the middle of the pitch. Eventually Belvo gained possession and made a strong run for the corner. They found a soft shoulder or two and powered over for a great try. The conversion was missed but back to three points again. Still a long way to go.
The next score, as the old saying goes, was always going to prove crucial and Mary’s came storming back into the game. Five minutes after conceding, Mary’s had made their way to the Belvo try line. Much work has been done all season by the coaching staff to exploit these opportunities and it was no coincidence that the try was duly scored by hooker Robbie Rayn whose dad Rob has served Mary’s with honour and distinction for many years and who has been an integral part of the coaching setup. Josh faced another equally difficult conversion, but when needed most, he slotted home. Hi s dad JP – another valued coach – will have enjoyed that. A 20 to 10 lead for Mary’s and even with ten or more minutes to play, it felt like we would see the game home from here. Victory was ensured shortly after when Adam Smyth crossed for a try that was richly deserved given the brilliance of his play on the day.
His dad’s words echoed.
The final whistle blew.
We learnt and we won.