Blackrock’s ‘Dream Team’ – where are they now?
Five players would go on to play for Ireland, a future great of the game was on the bench
Brian O’Driscoll “I knew I was small and knew I had to wait for a bit of size to come. It came over the course of that summer. I must have grown four or five inches.”
The rugby is over now. They can be found in Dublin offices like Davy Stockbrokers, KPMG or away in Chicago, London and Vancouver. All pushing 40, many husbands some fathers. Some surviving, some struggling, some shining.
It changes all the time. Just ask Leo Cullen at Leinster’s weekly press briefing.
A drought in Blackrock College terms is five years. That’s the length of time it takes a teenager to pass through the College. After 1990 and until Barry Gibney’s young team edged Clongowes Wood in the ’95 final in torrential conditions at Lansdowne Road, the most successful rugby school in the world had been starved of Cup success; all the while knowing that potentially their greatest ever offering to the game was being nurtured on the expanse of Williamstown grassland.
The ’95 team was made up mostly of 16 and 17 year olds already labelled The Dream Team following their Junior Cup exploits (just after the Barcelona Olympics produced a freakish US basketball roster that included Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson).
In the summer of 1995 Gibney led most of them unbeaten through Australia on a Leinster Schools tour. That September he returned, along with fellow forwards Keith Murphy and Peter Smyth, for another crack at the Leaving Cert and glory on St Patrick’s Day.
Five of the team were eventually capped by Ireland but even the subs proved to be high achievers. Take Mark Fearon. The physically imposing prop sat on the bench in fourth, fifth and sixth year yet he was good enough to play Leinster under-20s straight after school.
“I was only a sub for the dream team,” said Fearon. “Now I do hold a record in that I was sub for the JCT in 1993 then sub for the SCT in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Once I left school I went straight up to the Blackrock club firsts and Leinster 20s. Don’t think they valued a big guy as much in schools rugby! Unfortunately back then you could only come on as a sub if someone was injured. So I never got to play a minute of a cup game but got the winners medals! After school I had a very successful few years with Blackrock, Trinity and Leinster until I got injured and took time off. Which turned out to be permanent. I now have troubles with my back, shoulders and knees. I know some if not all are a result of playing a high level of rugby from the age of 12 until 21. So in some ways I’m glad I stopped when I did or I’m not sure what shape I’d be in if I hadn’t.”
Twenty years is a long time ago so we rattled three more memory banks; all of whom were outsiders, of sorts, among a squad that captured every available piece of silverware from infancy all the way to the under-20s All-Ireland League title in 1997.
We talked to a future British and Irish Lions captain not deemed big enough to make the XV, a north Kildare hurler who overcame dodgy knees to play Premiership rugby for a decade before reappearing as CEO of London Irish (back then he was known as Danny Casey’s enormous little brother) and the maths teacher who coached them to Junior Cup success in 1993.
Alan MacGinty (Blackrock principal): “The first time I saw them play was at the Millennium international between Ireland and England. Willow Park played Terenure, I think, but it was the first time there was a half-time game for kids.”
Even then it was evident. They were special.
Bob Casey (London Irish Chief executive, seven caps for Ireland): “My brother Danny was playing up in Stradbrook. I used to love going to see him play for the club so that was the connection. I’m from north Kildare so a lot of guys who I played rugby with growing up ended up in Clongowes or Castleknock. That’s who I would go to see in the schools cup at Donnybrook or Lansdowne Road. I was blown away by it all. Danny said to Mum and Dad that they should send me to Blackrock for rugby, and education. I loved it. I really did. I had played with North Kildare RFC but I was still playing hurling and football all the time. Maynooth (GAA club) used to come into the school and collect me to bring me to games.”
Casey arrived in transition year but was underage for Ciarán Scally’s 1994 JCT that lost the final to Belvedere.
Casey: “It’s a big school, the grounds are very impressive, the facilities are amazing. Just the number of pupils is something in itself. It all took a little getting used to. Everything was bigger. And then there was the intensity of the rugby. The standards expected of you were huge. I went in as a boarder. There were some great lads. Stevie Tanner. and then Leo came in boarding in fifth year.”
The numbers stack up high. Five senior Ireland internationals (Brian O’Driscoll, Casey, Leo Cullen, Scally and Dave Quinlan), 10 of the team played some form of professional rugby, a flood of AIL players like blindside Richard Woods (the star in any other year), the current Leinster head coach, current head of the Leinster Academy (Peter Smyth) and some very successful businessmen.
Nine of them toured Australia with Ireland in the summer of ’96.
Brian O’Driscoll: “When you have that many schoolboys there is going to be an aura behind a team but people shouldn’t forget we were a kick away from being beaten by St Michael’s in the quarter-final.”
Was the replacement scrumhalf to blame?
O’Driscoll: “A bit, yeah. It was also the coach’s fault for never playing the sub scrumhalf at scrumhalf throughout the season. My passing was not of the standard expected as I had been playing either at 10 or on the wing predominantly that season, so I could be forgiven for it.”
O’Driscoll was outside the inner circle to a certain extent as he played club rugby with his mates in fourth year.
1996 Leinster Schools Senior Cup Final
O’Driscoll: “I have to say that Clontarf under-16s season reignited my love for rugby. I felt a bit uninspired after the Junior Cup, after the slog and not getting anywhere really. I knew I was small and knew I had to wait for a bit of size to come. It came over the course of that summer. I must have grown four or five inches. I was never expected to be in the 22. I was a squad player for the whole year but I started on the wing against CBC Monkstown in the first round because Michael Price was injured. It went well enough. I was scrumhalf for the quarters then dropped for the semi-final against Terenure.”
What do you remember about the St Michael’s game?
O’Driscoll: “I remember Barry John McMahon missing a kick to beat us and I remember feeling uncomfortable on the pitch because my passing wasn’t up to scratch. If I had of gone on the wing and not scrumhalf maybe I would have made it a more difficult decision for our coach Vinnie Costello. But Pricey was first choice.”
On talent and ability, who stood out?
Bob Casey: “Barry, always. Dave ‘Magic’ Johnson. Skids [Scally]as well. In terms of rugby brain, Leo. Tommy Keating was furiously brave at fullback.”
You don’t mention O’Driscoll...
Casey: “He could do really special things. Ah, we were a beast of a team. The size thing went against him. Our game was built around physical dominance.”
St Michael’s used that against them in the quarter-final.
Casey: “They came up with a brilliant game plan and almost got us. They let us catch the ball at the lineout and got down on all fours so we couldn’t set up a drive so we just fell over. They had a good team at the time as well. We didn’t play well but we found a way to win it. We always found a way to win.”
Cullen and Casey were known at the time as the Twin Towers.
Casey: “We were always good mates but we probably talk now more than ever because of our new roles.”
Both men had long stints as club captains of Leinster and London Irish yet Casey still finds it easy to pay tribute to his school captain.
Casey: “We had one of the best leaders ever in Barry Gibney. I was a year younger but I certainly wasn’t a leader but that develops over time. Leo was so talented and such an easy person to follow that captaincy did come to him with Ireland at underage and he captained some teams in school. Then the Leicester experience was very good for him. Leo is a natural leader.”
O’Driscoll: “Gibo, Smythy, Leo and Skiddy were the four.”
MacGinty: “Leo was always a quiet leader. Those type of leaders are very important; guys who always deliver. We never had any doubt about Leo’s credibility, at any age. That character is standing to him now with Leinster. He’s the man for the long road. He will deliver, he won’t compromise his standards, and he won’t be overly upset with the media onslaught that comes when things go wrong. People trust that quiet leadership.”
You are not what you were born, but what you have within yourself to be.
Gibney is perhaps best comparable in stature and technique over the ball to Heinrich Brüssow. Switched to centre as a 16-year-old, just to get him on the pitch, he was back at openside to outfox fellow captain Phil Waugh (79 Wallaby caps) as the Ireland schoolboys beat Australia on that tour.
Casey: “The way Barry played was phenomenal. His bravery. He had a fantastic rugby brain that always got him to the right place at the right time. Brilliant communicator. Very, very tough in how he played but also in terms of what he wanted from you, what he expected from you. Pretty relentless. He just drove and drove and drove us. But that was the thing; there was so many of us getting recognition that, maybe, if we weren’t altogether and it was only two or three of us in a smaller school those egos might have got ahead of them. But no one’s ego was out of check, no one stepped out of line - not even Pricey. Well, not really.”
Michael Price was the 6 foot 4 inch, 15 stone winger who kept O’Driscoll benched. Signed by Clive Woodward’s Bath straight out of school in 1997 he ended up playing European Cup for Pontypridd - his father Mikey is Welsh - and representing the Ireland Sevens before taking off on a self-style world tour, playing at varying levels of professionalism in New Zealand, Australia and eventually South Africa while making the ‘Dub Sub Confidential’ tales seem like a few scoops after work.
O’Driscoll: “Pricey turned it around and has created a great career for himself . . . he is clearly addicted to exercise. That’s one of the better things to be addicted to.”
Reverend Price can now be found in his Crossfit church in London. His Achilles took care of rugby but not his daily dance of calisthenics and plyometrics.
Injuries plagued this entire squad. It probably robbed them of a sixth or seventh Ireland international. Perhaps even a second or even third Lions tourist.
Scally was capped four times for Ireland before a knee injury ended a promising career just before his 21st birthday.
Gibney and Smyth - in many ways the Lewis and Clark of Blackrock rugby; pioneers into professional rugby in terms of preparation and later coaching - were not afforded the time to fulfil their potential as players but the game continues to squeeze every drop out of them.
Injuries also saw Gibney done by 21 but he went on to become head coach of Blackrock club, Old Belvedere and Bective Rangers. Smyth played 28 times for Leinster between 1998 and 2003 before illness and injury combined to slow his march. He guided St Mary’s RFC to the AIL in 2012 and after getting his H-dip returned to the school to oversee the senior cup team. Leinster recently recognised his coaching and inter-personal skills by naming them as their new Academy Manager.
MacGinty: “David Quinlan [two caps for Ireland before retiring due to concussion] was always going to take a career route as opposed to rugby. But there is no career in rugby. That is a big nonsense that has got to be made clear for youngsters. Rugby can be an occupation, if you are fortunate enough, but as you come out of your 20s, late 20s if you avoid injuries and have durability, you are going to be on par career-wise with some graduate who is about 22. It is a very narrow experience in that regard. You don’t have the luxury of a professional footballer in terms of the bank balance that can keep you going through your 30s until you get yourself going somewhere else.
“There is no rugby career; it’s a short term occupation. That’s why it is absolutely vital that they do something alongside it. It’s important the Academies insist upon players that they maintain their academic progress. If only because the attrition rate is so high.
“You talk about Ciarán Scally. Ciarán got a first class honours degree in Commerce from UCD. I remember when he got injured ringing him to see if he wanted to get involved in coaching in the school, he would have been great to coach the young fellas [Kilmacud Crokes have him nowadays], and for him just to keep involved in the game, but he was very realistic in accepting it of it and was amazing coming from a 21-year-old. He said, ‘Listen, I’ve got more out of rugby than most would get in an entire lifetime. I’m very grateful for that.’ He was able to move on. I think a lot of that comes down to himself, his family - his father and mother - and that sense of balance and perspective on life. People can become obsessed with being a professional rugby player.”
But still, wasn’t it a shame we didn’t see longer careers from Scally, Smyth and Gibney?
MacGinty: “They were very talented. Barry was an exceptional schoolboy, no doubt about that, whether he had the physical size to go all the way you wonder about that. Peter was very unlucky, it wasn’t an injury, it was health [he had meningitis but he did recover to play a season with Rotherham]. I think he is still the most capped Ireland schoolboy.
“But Ciarán Scally would have got 100 caps, I’ve no doubt about that. He was phenomenal.”
Anyway, they swept past CBC, stumbled over their sister school St Michael’s, beat a gritty Terenure side before a storming 37-3 destruction of Geordan Murphy’s Newbridge College in the final.
Bob Casey: “But we were very clear about where we wanted to go. Even pre-season training. All of us. It certainly thought me a lot after where I had come from. The drive to want to win that cup in ‘96 was something serious, really serious. It was a pretty special bunch of people.”
They must have a special place in the schools’ history?
MacGinty: “No, because in Blackrock we value every team as special. Whether they win or lose they are special. Yes, there was only four captains who had gone back-to-back before Barry.”
“But the ones you remember the most are the ones you lose because they stay with you. Winning teams disappear into the ether. They were a great group. But the great thing about education is every period is a great period because you are dealing with youngsters. That’s what keeps you going.”
Blackrock College (1996 team): Tom Keating; Michael Price, Greg Duffy, David Quinlan, David Johnson; Neil O’Donovan, Ciarán Scally; Trevor O’Rourke, Peter Smyth, Stephen Tanner; Keith Murphy, Bob Casey, Richard Woods, Barry Gibney (capt), Leo Cullen.