'You can even hear the whispers of, “Rugby? Did he say the Institute now has, like, a rugby team?”’
The canteen in the Institute is rammers and yet I spot Eugene Cowser straight away, sitting at a table on the far side – fat head, quiff, biceps bursting out of his blue Apple Crumble polo shirt. He reminds me so much of myself at his age, it makes me want to weep.
He’s playing – of all things – chess with this skinny little dude with curly hair and glasses. That makes we want to weep as well.
When I walk up to their table, the glasses dude is going, “The physics paper this year was very mathematics-heavy. I genuinely don’t think that’s going to happen again.”
I stand over their chessboard – seriously? – until the glasses dude looks up at me and I go, “Hit the bricks, Four Eyes. I want to have a word with your friend here.”
He goes, “Why should I move? We’re in the middle of a game here.”
I grab his specs off his face and I throw them over my shoulder. I’m like, “Because your glasses are over there, that’s why.”
I left school a decade-and-a-half ago – it’s amazing how quickly it all comes back to you.
He stands up and calls me one or two names – which I refuse to respond to, being the bigger man – then off he trots to get his glasses.
I notice Eugene staring at the rugby ball and the rolled-up posters in my hands. He’s like, “Who are you?”
I laugh. I’m like, “Okay, if that’s the way we’re going to play it. I’m Ross O’Carroll-Kelly – as if you didn’t know.”
“Never heard of you.”
“You’re hurt. You’re lashing out. I get it.”
He goes, “Whatever. Like
Deasmumhnach said, we’re in the middle of a game here.”
I suddenly take the rugby ball and I slam it down right in the centre of the chessboard, sending chess pieces flying everywhere. It’s genuinely like something from a movie, in fairness to me. I go, “Do you recognise this?”
He sighs. He literally sighs.
I’m there, “It’s called a rugby ball. You used to know what it was for – that’s according to people who saw you in your prime.”
He goes, “That part of my life is over now. All I’m interested in is getting a good Leaving Cert.”
I laugh. I’m there, “What’s the point of that?”
He goes, “You mean what’s the point of education?”
“Exactly. There’s fock-all out there for you when you leave school and a million points in your Leaving isn’t going to change that basic fact. There’s not going to be any jobs – but there’s always going to be rugby.”
This is me at my definite best – inspiring the youth. I could easily have been a teacher if I’d had a brain.
He goes, “I’ve no interest in that game anymore.”
And I’m like, “That’s a shame. Because I’m about to stick a couple of dozen of these posters up around the school.”
I roll one out for him.
He reads what it says. Institute of Education hosting rugby trials and blah, blah, blah.
He’s there, “This school doesn’t play rugby.”
I’m like, “Correction – didn’t play rugby. They do now. And I should know because I’m the coach.”
It’s like this sudden hush descends on the canteen. People literally stop talking mid-conversation and stort listening to what we’re saying? You can even hear the whispers of, “Rugby? Did he say the Institute now has, like, a rugby team?”
Eugene tries to laugh. Like I said, he’s hurting. He goes, “Who are you going to even play against?”
I’m there, “Dude, I’m putting a team together to enter the Vinnie Murray Cup.”
His face collapses like a Scottish scrum. He’s like, “You’re crazy.”
Now, everyone is suddenly listening.
I’m there, “Maybe I am crazy. Or maybe I just happen to believe that there’s the makings of a good rugby team in this school – led by you.”
He goes, “Forget it.”
I’m like, “Dude, hear me out. Look, I know you had your hort broken by rugby. Jesus, who hasn’t?” and I can’t stop myself from just smiling and shaking my head at that moment. “That’s why we love the game so much. You thought you were going to win the Leinster Schools Senior Cup with Clongowes and you got injured on the eve of the competition . . .”
“How do you know so much about me?”
“Because this is what I was born to do. I have stuff in my head, Eugene. Stuff about rugby. And it’s my duty to pass it on. I want you on my team and I want you as my captain.”
All over the canteen, people are going, “Say yes!” and, “You’ve got to say yes!”
They’re no longer thinking about the theme of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 17, or the principles of fusion, or the three distinct anti-derivatives of some blahhy-blah function. They’re thinking about Leinster’s second-tier schools rugby competition and they’re dreaming all sorts of crazy dreams.
“No,” Eugene goes – just like that. Then he stands up and he walks away.
Just before he reaches the door of the canteen, I call his name. He turns around and, with no pre-warning, I pick up the rugby ball and I throw it at him.
Now, my throwing orm is still one of the best-kept secrets in rugby. The ball flies through the air like an actual bullet. Ninety-nine percent of people would either duck or jump out of the way. Eugene doesn’t. Instinctively, he puts up his hand and he catches it – in one hand.
There are gasps, then those gasps turn into a round of applause. And Eugene is just staring at the ground, shocked and possibly devastated, because he suddenly realizes that he can’t escape who he basically is.
He drops the ball, turns on his heel and runs out of the canteen.
ILLUSTRATION: ALAN CLARKE