St Michael’s conveyor belt showing no signs of slowing down
South Dublin school has become best breeding ground for Europe’s greatest academy
Ireland and Leinster lock James Ryan in action for St Michael’s in the Senior Cup final against Blackrock in March 2013. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
They have become the leading rugby feeder school in the country, so much so that St Michael’s have become something of a modern-day phenomenon – the best breeding ground for Europe’s best academy.
All told, 11 of the Leinster’s all-conquering 46-man professional squad are products of St Michael’s, as is Nick McCarthy at Munster, Noel Reid at Leicester and Denis Coulsen in Carcassonne in the Pro D2, while the school has three more in the Leinster academy and two members of the full-time Ireland Sevens squad.
Last Wednesday marked a new high. Five ex-St Michael’s players were named by Andy Farrell in his first Six Nations squad – James Ryan, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne and the uncapped duo of Ronan Kelleher and Max Deegan. Ditto two of the four development players, namely the 20-year-old duo of lock Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne, younger brother of Ross.
In addition to Ross, McGrath and Ryan, Reid, Dan Leavy and Rory O’Loughlin have also been capped over the last six years. Last season the school claimed its third Leinster Schools Senior Cup in the last 13 seasons and completed the double by winning their fifth Junior Cup.
Yet all this is from a school that didn’t win a Leinster Schools Senior Cup until 2007 and had only produced one international prior to 2014.
Out of little acorns . . . Relatively speaking, St Michael’s is a young school as well as a new rugby powerhouse. Founded in 1944 as a voluntary Catholic boys school by the Holy Ghost Fathers on Ailesbury Road in leafy Ballsbridge, St Michael’s was a feeder school along with Willow Park to Blackrock College, a mile or so up the Rock Road.
It wasn’t until 1975 when boys sat the Leaving Cert there for the first time. Derek McGrath’s older brother, Frank (father of Luke) was one of those pupils, and three years later Derek was on the school’s Senior Cup team captained by Frank Moloney (current club president of UCD and father of Ross, the Leinster lock) beaten in the semi-finals by Clongowes.
Derek McGrath became the school’s first international in 1984 against Scotland at Lansdowne Road, and remained their only international until 2014, even if some at St Michael’s might lay claim to Keith Gleeson, who left at the age of seven when his family moved to Sydney. But that’s stretching things.
“The Holy Ghost are called Spiritans now, and maybe it’s because they are missionaries and a lot of the priests had lived away, but they had a good attitude to life,” says McGrath. “It wasn’t about the winning, it was actually about enjoying the sport. They bred a real interest in the game and a love for sport. Noel Turley was there at the start of all that and had a great attitude and a great reputation in the game.”
The driving force for many years, Turley strongly resisted attempts to change the school’s fixture list toward tier two. After McGrath won his first cap he returned to St Michael’s and presented Turley with his match jersey.
“I’d started as a scrumhalf, centre, fullback and then winger, and Noel actually said to me in my Leaving Cert year, ‘I want to try you out at wing-forward’ and that’s where I played from then on.”
Fittingly, McGrath returned to present his jersey to Turley.
“Noel was a soft-hearted man as well as being really passionate about it,” adds McGrath. “He was very emotional about the game and he really felt for the teams and felt for people. He was very serious about it, but he was also very serious about people which you still like to see in sport.”
While the numbers have swelled in keeping with the school’s expansion, like most private schools in south Dublin, the fees are eye-watering – €6,500 for primary school and €5,800 for secondary school. Rugby is its primary sporting activity, albeit enjoyment of the game is paramount. Over 400 pupils play rugby, which now puts out 18 or 19 teams a week, almost double the numbers from the early noughties.
All began to change with the arrival of Tim Kelleher as the school’s principal in 2001-02. A former hurler from Cork, his sons are the current Leinster players Cian and Ronan.
Andy Skehan, described as a friend and a mentor by Ryan, is a former pupil who returned in 2004 and, having been the school’s junior coach and senior coach as well as a teacher, became their full-time director of rugby in 2012.
Coach of UCD for the last three years, Skehan coaches the Leinster Under-18s, while his brother Sean coached Glenstal to their first Munster Schools Senior Cup success two seasons ago and is now Terenure College’s club head coach.
The St Michael’s gym was built in 2001 and has been upgraded along the way, with similar equipment to the Leinster gym if not on the same scale, and the school have enlisted top-end strength and conditioning coaches Fiona Oppermann, the former Irish athlete; Junior Charlie, the New Zealander and ex-Connacht flanker; Andy Burke, the ex-Munster outhalf; and, currently, James Ruxton, a former Irish 400 metre runner.
It has been a long and sometimes painful road and hence, perhaps, according to some first-hand accounts from parents at other schools, an element of arrogance has crept into St Michael’s supporters/ex-pupils on the sidelines, which is something the school will need to continually keep in check.
That 2012 Senior/Junior Cup double followed five Junior Cup final losses in succession. Ala Munster until 2006 and Leinster until 2009, the various losses were part of the journey.
St Michael’s won the 2006 Senior final for the time when Reid kicked both penalties in a 6-0 win over Clongowes during a first-half snow storm at Donnybrook.
“I’d missed one in the final the year before, so it was nice to right that wrong,” says Reid. “Back then you didn’t realise how big it was for the school. It was a crazy few days. I suppose winning the first is the hardest.”
Reid also became the second St Michael’s pupil to be capped by Ireland, against Argentina in 2014.
Reid is now enjoying a fresh challenge at Leicester, where the multi-national squad has made him appreciate the indigenous production line at Leinster, with his school to the fore.
“Andy Skehan got everything going in the school coaching-wise, and they’ve never looked back. Greg McWilliams was there when I was there and is a very good coach, but Andy had a clear plan and so I’d give him a lot of credit. Andy turned it into a way more professional set-up.”
“It’s almost like an academy set-up. The strength and conditioning programme was being introduced when I was there, but it’s way more advanced now. So when they do leave and join the Leinster academy, they’re very comfortable in that set-up. They do their video analysis of all the games. They’re almost professionals when they’re leaving school.”
So it is that six players from the school captained the Irish Under-20s for six successive years from 2012 to ‘17 – McGrath, Leavy, McCarthy, Ryan, Josh Murphy and Jack Kelly, now part of the Sevens squad.
Reid’s cousin, Christopher Fagan, was on the Senior Cup team which won the trophy in 2012, scoring an intercept in the final.
“I’m embarrassed to say we almost didn’t win it,” says Jackman of a team which featured Molony, Leavy, McCarthy, Ross Byrne, O’Loughlin, Cian Kelleher and Coulsen. In the first round, a Ross Byrne penalty in the sixth minute of injury time earned a draw against Roscrea in Maynooth.
In his playing days with Leinster, Jackman says: “There was a feeling that Michael’s fellas didn’t really have the heart or mentality to make it, whereas now you can see how mentally tough Ross Byrne, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Scott Penny and these kids are.”
Once such a problem position that Michael Cheika, Colin McEntee and Malcolm O’Kelly launched a talent identity scheme for players of about 6ft 6in, Jackman cites the production line of locks Ryan, Molony, Baird and two other academy players, Oisin Dowling and Jack Dunne.
“It’s a freak,” says Jackman. “They’re all big athletic players. In five of the last six years they’ve had a lock who was seen as good enough to go into the best academy in Europe.”
They also have four backrowers in the senior squad.
In all of this too, very often it’s the clubs – notably Lansdowne – which introduced these players to rugby and/or fine-tuned them after school, with Trinity and UCD playing prominent roles. Ryan, the Kellehers, Penny, Dowling and Deegan all played with Lansdowne.
It’s also worth noting that ‘Rock are back, with six of their players in the current academy, while others are contributing, albeit they, St Michael’s, Belvedere and Clongowes, have won 15 of the last 16 Senior Cups, and had 15 of the 19 players currently in their academy.
Reid has trained and played with all of the current St Michael’s crop: “There’s just that buzz in the school which is infectious. The students can see the path. Ryan Baird probably looked up to James Ryan, and now guys in second and third year look up to Ryan Baird. They see it’s attainable. The coaching is brilliant. It’s very professional. So I can’t see it stopping any time soon.”
All things being equal, Deegan, Kelleher, Baird, the younger Byrne and Scott Penny are prospective internationals. An all-weather pitch was completed at the school in 2016, and so there’s every reason to believe the production line will continue.
“What I like about Michael’s is their temperament more so than their ability to be good rugby players,” says Jackman. “If you want to get into the Leinster academy, you already have to be innately competitive since you were 15 or 16, whether you’re in Michael’s or ‘Rock.
“For those kids they’re not as prone to having dips in form or to doubting themselves. They’re already quite confident in their ability to battle and stand their ground, on top of which Andy Skehan has got in good coaches at all levels.”
“The lads don’t over-train. They have their rest periods and they’ve got good balance. Josh Murphy is doing medicine. McGrath, Leavy, Molony, O’Loughlin are all getting their degrees or doing their night classes, or doing their masters, while they’re at the highest level of playing.
“People criticise them for chasing cups but from what I can see it’s all around education and rugby, and music and art, and I think that helps lads when they leave the school. My group got unbelievable Leaving results. They’re all strong academically, they don’t lose the head and they’re pretty grounded as well.”
The comedians Risteard Cooper and David Doherty, and the actors Killian Scott, Jason O’Mara, Peter McDonald and Allan Leech are among their past pupils, as are a disparate group of politicians, the ex-Labour leader Ruairi Quinn, Richard Boyd Barrett and Eoghan Murphy.
Continuity also helps, as Kelleher and Skehan, have shown, and many of the teachers and coaches are ex-pupils, and evidently all share a love of, and pride in, the school.
“They’ve built a culture where it’s a massive part of the school’s identity,” says Jackman. “My son is in fifth class and last season he saw them win three cups: the Under-13s, the Juniors and the Seniors. Once you can get that success year on year, it kind of feeds itself for a long time.”
Indeed, ne’er a true word. Success breeds success.