When De La Salle ruled the roost in Leinster schools rugby

Diarmuid Coogan on how the Churchtown school upset the odds twice in the 1980s

The De La Salle Churchtown 1983 Leinster Schools Cup winning team, with Diarmuid Coogan (middle row, second from right).

Diarmuid Coogan remembers well the first tight connection of the neck and shoulders. Not like it was yesterday, given it was 39 years ago already, still enough to recall the moment he sensed De La Salle had a real chance of winning this.

“It was easier than it should have been, you know that way?” he says, recreating in his own head the first scrummage of the 1983 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final between the Churchtown school and Castleknock College.

“It had been built up before that Castleknock had such an imposing pack, they were going to dominate. Actually we were used to hitting big hard men, being hit harder, including the semi-final against Roscrea.”

What unfolded at the old Lansdowne Road that March Sunday has lasting significance on several rugby fronts. After losing two previous finals, in 1968 and 1975, De La Salle won 13-6, with that becoming the first non-fee paying school since the so-called free scheme began to win the prized trophy.

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As if to prove it was no fluke they won it again two years later, beating Blackrock in the final, before losing the final again in 1986, and no non-fee paying school has come close to winning since. Will they ever?

Diarmuid Coogan (second from right with headband) celebrates with De La Salle team-mates after the 1983 Leinster Schools Cup final at Lansdowne Road.

Coogan was in fifth year when he played loosehead prop on that 1983 team, his story of some significance too in that after two decades of a bruising rugby career he escaped relatively unscathed, running his first sub-three hour marathon in 2005, which the late Jerry Kiernan, his then coach, described as possibly his greatest coaching achievement.

“Around 30 my neck did start to give out, I’d say every prop gets arthritis of the neck at some point, it’s really not designed for that kind of thing. There was very little awareness of concussion and head injury then, having said that the hits weren’t as bad. Players now are so much more bulked up. Back then, the classic build for a prop was maybe 5ft 9in, 15 stone. Now they’re all 19 stone, maybe too much bulk for their body.”

When Blackrock play Gonzaga in Sunday’s final they’ll be chasing title number 70, the first won back in 1887; Gonzaga have yet to win, losing the 2019 final. Still there hasn’t been a successful team of outsiders and underdogs and proverbial lightweights since De La Salle, and the elite modern preserve of the game suggests their feat won’t be repeated. With a little more luck the crazy truth is they might have won four-in-a-row.

Fate began to conspire early in Coogan’s life. Typical of that De La Salle team, he wasn’t of gilded rugby background: he grew up just around the corner from the school, off Whitehall Road, his interest perked by early visits to Donnybrook and De La Salle to watch neighbours and friends.

“Quite a few players came from that road, the Dowling family, four of their sons played for De La Salle. My father and grandfather were always into rugby, would bring me to Lansdowne Road from a young age. I was there in 1975, walking home with my dad, wanting to throw away the teddy bear, dressed up in the De La Salle colours, after they lost that final. I think that was the most dejected I ever felt after a rugby match.

De La Salle captain Michael McArdle lifts the Leinster Senior Cup at Lansdowne Road in 1983.

“I was playing myself from eight or nine, though I think then it was more of an embarrassment to my family, I couldn’t kick snow off a rope. I was a little overweight as a child, and if you were anyway big like that you tended to be thrown into the frontrow. So from age 11 or 12 I was playing prop. Lads would be playing a few different sports back then, but if you were any good at rugby, you wanted to be on the A team. From the Junior Cup team I was there pretty much through.”

Destiny played a hand in that 1983 victory too, beginning with the draw: “Going into the cup that year, I’d say we’d the worst record of any De La Salle team in history. We’d played 20 matches that season, only won four. Okay a lot of the losses were tight, but we were consistently losing.

“We got a bye into the second round, beating Newbridge, St Gerard’s, then met Roscrea in the semi-final. Like us, they hadn’t won the cup, and I’ve never been as sore after, an unbelievably tough game. We beat them 3-0, they missed about six or seven penalties. That was a real arm wrestle.

“We saw Castleknock as our chance. They hadn’t won a cup themselves since ’65, and probably had as much psychological baggage as us. The week before we beat Newbridge, we went to see Blackrock play Belvedere, and Blackrock wiped them off the pitch. We thought they were a different level.

“In the next round, Clongowes beat them, so all the strong teams were in the opposite side of the draw, took each other out really, and all of us had absolutely no fear of Castleknock, whatever about Blackrock or Terenure.”

A 1983 Leinster Senior Cup winning medal.

Despite all predictions, De La Salle dominated the scrum, before two second-half tries secured the win. “We’d been up to the old De La Salle club, on Glenamuck Road, that’s really where the winning foundation was made. Because from October on, every Tuesday, we went to scrummage against their first team. They were still a junior club, but we got used to hitting big hard men, and being hit hard. When it came to the cup our scrum was very, very solid.

“When the final whistle goes, that elation you’ll always remember, winning with your friends on the pitch, your other friends sprinting over from the sideline. The newspaper coverage was even bigger then, you knew from going to finals over the years the magnitude of it all.

"I played on in sixth year, when we had Jim Stynes on our team, lost the second round to Terenure. We didn't take our chances, they went on to win the cup, so that was one that got away. The funny thing is, after winning the schools cup medal, I never won another rugby medal after.

“Some of us have bad knees and arthritis and that, but we mostly got away with it. None of our brains are any worse than when we started. I’m happier running now though, I don’t miss the contact of the neck and shoulders.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics