New dreams for Newbridge
Every so often one of the lesser lights of Leinster schools rugby threatens to shine brightest. In 2014 that could undoubtedly be Newbridge College
Leinster’s Aaron Dundon gets the ball away during a Pro-12 match against Ulster in December. Photographs: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Mark Sutton of Newbridge College during the senior schools cup last year. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
Sometimes life takes a turn for the better and 10 years later you are some place you never dreamed you would be.
Aaron Dundon understands. Out of the esteemed rugby factory of Wellington Boys College and into Poneke rugby club, it wasn’t long before he came down with the same bug as older brothers Brad and Dwayne.
Most Kiwis are susceptible to it. That nomadic gene is what got their ancestors to the end of the Earth in the first place. Nowadays it tends to see them completing the circumference, but it’s their rugby gifts that keep them up here.
“I just wanted to get out of New Zealand, do a bit of travelling. I had a brother playing rugby in Canada and another brother playing county cricket in England so I wanted to see them and play a bit of rugby overseas. I was only supposed to come over and play with Seapoint for six months and then go back to my club in New Zealand.”
He arrived though at a time when the junior Dublin club was finally stretching its legs. It was the 2003-04 season and Dundon was 21 years young.
“I enjoyed it so much, when I was supposed to go home we were doing really well in the league. I didn’t want to leave the lads so they said stay another season, then another season, then that turned into three seasons.”
A decent hooker, he made enough of a name for himself that Clontarf’s New Zealand expatriate Andy Wood came calling.
“I enjoyed making the step up [to AIL division one]. It was just the right time.”
After moving to Castle Avenue he met Bernard Jackman, who told him about his school days down in Newbridge College.
Jackman thought enough of him to make the introductions and four years ago, Dundon was off to Kildare to become head coach of a senior cup rugby squad.
By then he had evolved from backpacker into professional rugby player. Timing is everything and one day Clontarf were pitted against a Leinster underage side. Greg Feek, All Black prop and Leinster scrum guru, liked what he saw.
“John Fogarty was struggling with concussions at the time and hadn’t been playing. I just played really well. They weren’t really sure when John was going to be back so they brought me in for a trial.”
Fogarty retired a few months later and the contract was Dundon’s. “I was pretty lucky how it turned out.”
Before he knew it he was immersed in an uber-professional environment with the ultimate aspirations year on year.
“It was a bit of shock. When I first came in it was tough, walking into a team that was already built. You have to learn new ways of playing. The coaching staff and players were really helpful and once you get in there, you don’t want to leave. It’s really enjoyable for your job to be playing rugby. I didn’t want to leave.”
So he knuckled down and earned the respect of his peers.
The rewards have followed this season and with them, an unenviable workload.
Richardt Strauss’s enforced time out after heart surgery and the inability to get a work permit for a temporary replacement meant Dundon was promoted to understudy for Seán Cronin on European match days.
Also, things have been stirring down in Newbridge. Anyone keeping tabs on the side that made last year’s semi-final, losing respectably to a far bigger St Michael’s unit, would be aware that the majority of them were still under-17.
“I’ve been working with the same lads for three years. I watched them at JCT when they got to the semi-finals. They were actually ahead but ended up losing to Michael’s. They are a really talented bunch, just a bit small. Since then I brought a few of them up just to train with us and they stuck with it.”
Ten have been selected by Leinster underage teams this season and Connacht came in for flanker Cormac Nugent. John Paul Phelan looks a genuine prospect at tighthead as is versatile halfback Mark Sutton.
In defeat to Michael’s they looked more like a Gaelic football team.
“Yeah,” Dundon agrees, “that’s one of the biggest problems they have down in Newbridge. A lot of them are playing Gaelic football as well [Chris Healy and Richard Dromgoole-Maguire are on the Kildare minor panel], so they will leave rugby training to go to Gaelic football training. That’s why they are not putting on any size.”
That matters nowadays in schools rugby. Not that this is necessarily a weakness. Last time Newbridge shook the traditional contenders in Leinster was 1996 when Geordan Murphy – a will-o’-the-wisp fly- half who never could pile on the pounds, even when Dean Richards docked his wages at Leicester – also doubled up with the Lilywhite minors.
“There are huge benefits to having Gaelic football skills in rugby, especially for a back or even a wing forward,” wrote Murphy in his autobiography. “You develop a good engine first and foremost. Kicking, catching and handling skills are also honed from a very early age.”
In the end, Murphy played just the one challenge match for Kildare against Tipperary as a wing halfback.
“I never made it to Croke Park with the Lilywhites,” he wrote, “but I did with Ireland. As a child you have dreams. When you get older, you forget your dreams, only remembering them when you realise you are living them.”
In the 1996 final, Newbridge ran into Blackrock’s greatest ever team so their only Leinster titles remain 1941 and 1970.
Dundon no longer sees size as a significant disadvantage. “The guys in the Leinster age groups have been working with the strength and conditioning coaches.”
The main problem could be what denied CBC in 2008, St Gerard’s in 2010 and Roscrea in 2013 the ultimate glory – a tradition of success and the enormous belief that comes with that. Not that Dundon believes his players don’t believe.
“If you ask every young player, they want to win it and they definitely have the team to do it. You need a bit of luck coming into the senior cup, you need the draw to be good to you.”
Their ability was certainly in evidence last December when they blitzed Roscrea in the league final, running out 43-10 victors.
“Building up to the league in Newbridge and building up to the cup it is a totally different buzz around the place. They care more for the cup than they do for the league. I am always saying, ‘Play in the league how you want to play in the cup’, but they just can’t get that. It is all about the cup. It’s just set in their minds.”
The way it always has been.