Liam Toland: Old Crescent young guns conquer Europe
Fantastic experience as panel of 28 young lads experience a memorable trip to Portugal
The Old Crecent Under-17s celebrate their win at the Portugal Rugby Youth Festival 2017 in Lisbon last weekend. Photograph: Rhys Herdman
You’ve probably never heard of Kieran O’Shea or of his front-row mates Ronan Keavney, Ronan Gallary, Paul Buston, Brian McCarthy and Luke O’Riordan but they were the boys at the coal face of Old Crescent Under-17s attack on Lisbon at the Portugal Rugby Youth Festival 2017 last weekend.
O’Shea is some player and was voted player of the tournament.
He played the entire six games at hooker and along with his excellent darts he has something very precious – a football brain. In heavy traffic he’d ride big hits, fixing defenders, knowing when to hold or offload; three v twos, no bother to him.
Although Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton would have made it to the South Pole and back easier than our weekend trip to Portugal, it was so worth it.
It was the first time these players toured and it was the furthest Paul Buston Senior ever travelled! We climbed aboard the bus on Friday for Dublin airport. Homework was issued.
Secondrow and lineout specialist Rory McNamara sketched various options out of touch while centre Mark McCrann was busy working out positional plays off scrums, inside our 22.
Approaching midnight we crossed the majestic ‘25 de Abril Bridge’ spanning 2.3km over the Tagus River to feast upon the incredible illuminated Lisbon. Our hotel was right beside the sea with the midnight heat inviting us. But true to touring – well?
A short weekend comes with its challenges – 28 travelling players. How to ensure all get a start and equal pitch time is so, so tough. Had we our time back I think a pre-selection before departing Ireland would have aided this challenge.
Saturday had three fixtures with the play-offs on Sunday, so with some trepidation we entered the university complex. Colm Kenny was first off the bus and the rest followed.
Portugal was the first time these 16-year-olds heard the words ‘Corridor of Power’. It was unleashed for the semi-final when the backrow of Sean Finucane, Mark Hickey and captain Ronan Reynolds double team smashed their bigger Portuguese opposition in an opening 10 minutes of sheer physicality that dominated the corridor brilliantly.
Outside backs Eoin Murphy and Timmy Duggan were under specific orders to only take the ball when running flat out, which was a joy to watch off such quality forward play.
Duggan continuously looked to open up the field with rewinds in the knowledge the fatties (only in name, they’re all in great shape) wouldn’t clog the space but also that wingers Ben Carew, Luke Callanan, Jim Fehily and the hero of the hour Cian Cusack (aka Keysie) were all ready to support.
So to the final against the Portuguese side CF Belenenses. The previous five games (20 minutes long) were played on quality pitches built for running the ball, but the final was in the stadium proper, complete with a live rock band pitch side and their university cheerleaders!
But first came the team selection. This was no easy challenge, especially as Tim Duggan Snr loitered before he was politely asked to leave – Chatham House Rules, I’ll have you know! Mind you, Duggie did note – tongue in cheek – while departing that as club vice-president he was entitled to stay!
Led by the cheerleaders the entire group of players marched out onto the stadium pitch. Belenenses were by far the best and biggest side we’d played.
We had been full of counterattacks and free running, but then Belenenses kicked three points on their first attack so we immediately changed tack.
Munster cup rugby if you will. Very cleverly, our halfbacks Robert Holmes and Maccon Casserly managed green grass and positioning to keep Belenenses at bay. Then early in the second half Eoin Murphy raced clear scoring under the sticks; 3-7.
But Belenenses scored, 10-7, and with but 45 seconds on the clock, Casserly restarted as all focused on Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to save the tour; when the late, late pressure penalty arrived Keysie got the unenviable task and of course he slotted it; 10-10 and into sudden death we went with Keysie converting the winner. Wild celebrations.
The win didn’t come without cost, with Enda Roche’s dead leg, Eoin Murphy vomiting throughout and Cillian Toland exiting at half time; dehydration, sunstroke, exhaustion and sleep deprivation was the doctor’s verdict.
William Campbell having replaced McNamara meant Brian Naughton (aka Boobies) joined the fray with Eoghan Herdman, Wiktor Novak, Oisin Evans, Maurice Smith and Mark McMahon in reserve.
The festival had four age grades competing through U-13, U-15, U-17 and the flagship U-19s. The first three had eight pools of three teams, totalling 24 teams per age.
So 72 teams were drawn from all over Europe, including Lansdowne and St Mary’s. There was only one pool for the U-19s as Europe could only muster six teams at U-19 level. Is this an insight into the cliff so many fall off as they leave school?
Along with a tour swim in the sea, everyone had a choice when on the bus; a song or a paddling. Team manager Joe McNamara avoided the paddle with a rapturous rendition of The Wheels on the Bus.
As I climbed into bed at 4.30am Monday morning I concluded the South Pole must be easier, but to witness 28 young rugby men gelling on foreign fields should be compulsory for all clubs; so too an equitable selection policy. As for what could possibly go wrong?
“What goes on tour, stays on tour”