Schools Rugby: Denis Leamy and Conor Quaid may clash again in Munster

Rockwell’s forwards coach faced the Christians coach and former outhalf in the 2000 final

The ball had barely left Conor Quaid's boot when he felt the force of a tackle that left him floored and bloodied but, by the time the final whistle floated up over Musgrave Park, his side had somehow won their fourth Munster Senior Cup final in a row.

The sight of the hit on Christians’ outhalf delivered by Rockwell College’s number eight 15 years ago, would become familiar to Munster fans further into that decade and Quaid remembers a player that, despite being part of a team that had blown a huge lead, was destined for bigger things.

Denis Leamy was at that stage, according to Quaid, the best schools player in the country and would go on to win two European Cups and a Grand Slam before a hip injury cut short his career in 2012, at the age of just 30. "We knew all about Denis," Quaid, now the backs coach at Christians, recalls. "He was the star man at the time. Denis was an unbelievable player back then. He was probably the best schoolboy in the country."

Leamy’s try in the final had helped Rockwell build an 8-3 half-time lead and when they surged 12 points clear in the second half they looked certain to win a first Senior Cup since 1985.

“I remember the match quite well,” Quaid says. “I remember kicking up a Garryowen at one stage and Denis hit me with a tackle and split me wide open. I still have the scar.”

With Quaid conducting Christians from outhalf, what followed was arguably one of the most dramatic and unexpected finales to a Senior Cup final in recent memory as three tries in the final 10 minutes helped them thieve a 25-18 win.

It was only the second time in the competition’s history a team had won four titles in a row and the second time Christians had achieved the feat, after the 1974 side under the visionary tutelage of Br Philip O’Reilly during a period of dynastic dominance when they won eight titles in 10 years.

Two months after that 2000 final, Quaid and Leamy were named in the Ireland Schools squad alongside Rory Best, Shane Jennings and Gavin Duffy for a tour of Australia where they won all eight games.

The friendship endured through university where they played together for UCC before they embarked on very different professional and sporting paths that may converge and clash again in this year’s competition.

Leamy, Rockwell’s forwards coach, was always conscious of the competition’s rich heritage.

“I would’ve been aware that an awful lot of internationals would have travelled the route of schools rugby and I was aware of the prestige attached,” Leamy says. “I would’ve felt at the time that if you could survive in a Munster schools environment and be a dominant player there was a chance you’d be looked at by the likes of the Munster academy and the Irish academy as it was at the time.”

Still only 33, the opportunity to coach presented itself sooner than expected and he was part of the Rockwell backroom staff when Crescent denied them three in a row in 2013.

“It wasn’t something that I saw myself doing 10 years ago but I ended up doing it. I’m really enjoying it. I get a great kick out of it.”

After leaving school Quaid joined Leamy at Munster’s academy and played for Highfield and Cork Constitution before ending up back at Christians as a Business Studies teacher.

"Denis would've been a lot more focused at the time than I was," he admits. "When we left school Denis, myself, Frank Murphy and Stephen Keogh would've been in the first year of Munster's academy. It was only kind of a fledgling thing at the time. David Corkery was one of the coaches there so it was the very early days of that kind of a notion of an academy.

“Of course, Denis went on to bigger and better things after graduating from the academy and getting his contract.

“Once I’d retired, coaching was a no-brainer. I wanted to stay involved in rugby and I was privileged enough to be with Christians so I started off coaching the younger fellas, the under-15s. This is my fourth year involved now. I also coached the Munster youths this year. It’s something I’m really interested in and it keeps me involved as well.”

Leamy was no longer part of the side when Rockwell avenged the 2000 defeat a year later in the semi-final but recalls the competition fondly. It’s full of special memories for me. For anyone who’s played in it you’ll never forget the atmosphere, the fanfare, the pride of having the whole school watching you. It brings an awful lot of pressure as well. You’re training all year round and it all ultimately comes down to one day and the team who copes best with the pressure. That can often be the difference between winning and losing.”

In an era in which Leamy says players are physically “light years ahead” of where he was at the same age, those words contain a certain poignancy, especially in the echo of Br O’Reilly’s reflections in a match programme in Christians’ centenary year in 1988.

“Rugby is really a very simple game,” he said. “And it should remain so by concentrating on doing the simple things extremely well . . . there’s an over-emphasis on winning at a time when children are incapable of absorbing the pressures of cup rugby. Good 15-man rugby will develop successfully when boys can enjoy their game and when the consequences of their mistakes will not bring them harmful criticism.”

Beyond the bumps and the scars and the medals, Quaid sums up its essence. “It’s huge,” he says. “You’re playing with all your mates that you’re going to school with and it’s something you’ll never forget.”