Thanks to Seán O’Rourke (Class of 2013) for penning this reflection on a historic moment for our College.
Gonzaga Win the Cup
‘That familiar feeling returns,’ an older Gonzaga alum sighs as Blackrock score their first try two minutes into the game at the RDS. That familiar feeling: the same pit in the stomach that arises whenever you see an oncoming dark cloud over the horizon, threatening and ominous in its will to downpour for the day. We fight back the urge to put our heads in our hands, as flashbacks abound to the nightmare rain-lashed days of losing by thirty, forty, and fifty points to the likes of Blackrock, Belvedere, Terenure, and Andrew Porter’s St Andrew’s side in years past. We all know the power of momentum in sport.
‘No, this year is different,’ I tell myself, as the chorus of ‘That’s al-right, that’s O-K, we’re gonna’ win this any-way’, rings again somewhere in my sub-conscious, along with the famous lines of Emily Dickinson’s poem: “Hope” is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all.”
In hope, I remember the flash highlights of Conor McKeon’s cross-field kick against Blackrock in 2013, caught superbly by Harry Caslin – and the former Connaught Academy out-half’s drop goal that put us in front of ‘Rock for a period of about four minutes; Garry Ringrose would personally respond to score over twenty points that day in another onslaught. Further back, I witnessed the SCT of 2007 losing 6-3 in a first round that, of course, like always in lost games, ‘We should have won’, but for the obvious interference of the – insert cause – wind/referee/bounce of a ball/cheating-player-on-the-opposing-team. I tried to forget the slaughtering in JCT Finals past, and dancing feet of Vasily Artemyev through flailing Gonzaga limbs and missed tackles of Green Army defences. Instead, I try to focus on the last-minute victory delivered by Harry Colbert over the Booterstown side in 2020, and the miracle that was beating Blackrock for the first time. That day showed anything was possible, and we’d arrived on the rugby scene. But as a well-known phrase in business and sport advises, ‘Overnight success usually takes about ten years’. Gonzaga are no different.
Enter Declan Fassbender. It is the summer of 2010, and the former schoolboy star joins the Gonzaga management team, taking over from Bobby Byrne who had coached Fassbender in the ’89 junior final. Byrne was to devote his energies full-time to the UCD Director of Rugby role, having developed the talents of Kevin McLaughlin, John Cooney, and Dominic Ryan at Gonzaga in the 2000s.
Around that time, Fr. Kennedy O’Brien, SJ, English teacher and spiritual father to the school, sought to raise our spirits after losing. He would compare the sacrifices and demands made on the rugby field with those of the Christian life: knowing that we were flawed, he’d admit we may not live up to all of the Church’s teachings and ideals – but it was still worth striving towards them. Similarly – Kennedy would encourage the rugby players to train as though they’d win the Senior Cup every year, despite knowing that they might never achieve that feat. And when we didn’t, repeatedly, it didn’t matter: what mattered was the striving, aiming upwards, and our effort to be as our school motto encouraged, ‘Semper et Ubique Fidelis’: that was where the meaning and learning were found. Perhaps it is fitting that the last group of students to have known Kennedy personally, are the graduating Class of ’23 – and they may have indeed have received a grace or two from above during the closest moments of Friday’s game.
The Fassbender Effect
On the field, Fassbender’s standards were different – and higher. Players described the endless fitness runs under the new regime, the quality, work-rate, conditioning, and competitiveness suddenly required by the Lansdowne coach – of a kind matched only by the standards Declan set for himself. Fassbender’s presence immediately would command attention: physically, his presence and frame in a room were powerful, and his strong character and expertise more than capable of maintaining command. So naturally would the schoolboys wish to follow his leadership, and always with Declan’s good sense of humour and towards enabling players’ best performance. Fassbender would shout at students, but always have them enjoying and performing a beautiful rugby game.
The Fassbender effect would be seen in time through the increased confidence of Gonzaga sides playing ‘on the edge’, with flair in polished set pieces, ‘eyes up’ rugby, and scintillating back moves between the ’16-’19 seasons. This was aided by the strength and athletic development work of Chris Coburn off the pitch, and extensive backroom team members, medics, and coaches too numerous to count.
At Friday’s final, and for the third time in four years – Fassbender is there. The might of Blackrock, the size of their pack, and bigger frames to a man threaten with every kick-and-chase move. Galvanised by their supporters, chanting, ‘You play chess!’ after Gonzaga mishaps, one wonders whether the Ranelagh side will keep their half-time lead. The ‘Rock Machine strikes in the second half, and none can predict what the difference will be in the dying minutes. Being part of a legacy of seventy titles would certainly help, and a 92% success rate in prior finals could, also. Gonzaga, seeking their first Cup, begin to play too much in their own half, forcing mistakes from a state of wanting: the missed passes, flat deliveries, and penalty concessions not part of the first half, are suddenly recurring in the second. I recognise again that all-too-familiar dreaded scoreline. Blackrock continue trying to kick to the corner and use their maul – with one or two back moves in their arsenal, too. Gonzaga manage to escape a ‘Rock overlap attack that could conclude the contest, and score a wonderful try from a half-way line scrummage to reset the stage. ‘Zaga go back in front, but Blackrock score a try almost immediately in response to cancel it. Watching the green jerseys stay in the fight for so long dares us supporters to believe. We get the sense that this could be our day, and that the tight games earlier in the year against Pres Bray, Kilkenny, and Newbridge might stand to this team. Winning, like excellence, is a habit.
But we trail by a score: Gonzaga earn a penalty, kick for the corner, and have a try held-up. ‘That was our chance. That’s the championship lost, right there,’ my friend says, and the litany of ‘what-ifs’ begins. Might we ever get so close to winning again? And for how long will the regret last: another twelve months, or another twelve years?
Gonzaga regain possession from the ‘Rock restart, and make some strong carries into Blue territory. The speed of our forwards and substitutes late in the day is making a difference, and despite facing some players twice their size at the breakdown, Gonzaga march on towards the line – for Wiley to earn a score under the posts. McMahon converts, and the team holds out a final ‘Rock scrum push as the Greens kick into touch for a successful finish. History is made.
A Brave New World
To anyone inside Fassbender’s camp, this result would not be a surprise. It was the fruit of a long road, focused on processes, performance, and the coach’s belief that his players were always capable of reaching the summit. It was part of the movement from the school’s annual ‘Cup Game’ to ‘Cup Campaign’; some of the poster boards in the Gonzaga dressing room this week had quotations reminding them to stick the course: the wisdom of Mohammed Ali, T. Roosevelt’s reflection on the ‘Man in the Arena’, and the classic adage: ‘Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard’, and the like. The board picture of alumni with ‘Our Team – Our History’ had an air of destiny to it, their faces reflecting to present players that the success of a semi-final or silver medal wouldn’t do; they’d need to go all the way.
As the commentator presented the Cup to Paul Wilson, in ‘the moment we’ve all been waiting for,’ I wondered what might happen next. What kind of acceptance speech would there be? Where might the supporters’ after-party be? No spectator was really expecting this, as the Gonzaga Twitter account so eloquently quipped, ‘We appear to have won the Senior Cup’. Wilson spoke with characteristic poise and humour, addressing the opposition coach candidly in his correctional comment that ‘the real final was played last week’.
Among the alumni and fans, we were in unchartered waters. There were reports of five hundred people descending on Merrion Cricket Club, and a single barman to serve them. Chaos. Photos of beer cans being opened in the school canteen were suddenly being shared, with the St Ignatius statue holding the trophy, as the carnival and further speeches began.
This day was indeed different. No more would Gonzaga be the whipping boys of Leinster, the wannabe ‘Renaissance Men’, better off spending their time with the mandatory Junior Cert Latin texts of Virgil and Horace, or out for another game of cricket, tennis, or chess. No, this was the year of Robbie Williams’ song, ‘Angels’ being sung instead of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ after games, chants of ‘We’ll beat you in the Leaving’ exchanged for tears of joy after the final whistle.
This win was justified, merited in every sense, and deserved as much as any of the past – and perhaps even more so. With the exception of Roscrea, the other schools on the Roll of Honour with a single title have not won in the last 50 years. In the advent of the professional era, it comes at a time when Blackrock, St Michael’s, and the other Leinster schools have never been more competitive, sought after, or successful in channelling players onto the provincial, national (AIL), and international stage. Our rugby team is currently ranked at #1 in the world.
Fassbender and Wilson’s troops have shown that the ‘impossible’ can be done, and that this year’s Senior Cup wasn’t wholly won on a temperate Friday in March 2023. It was won on cold winter nights, in August pre-seasons, through the commitment and perseverance of countless families, staff, brothers, parents, coaches, and alumni over the years. It was won when Paul Wilson decided to rise before 6.00am for a bus from Ashbourne to reach morning gym workouts.
It’s a long way from the days of old, when my classmates used to dream of being able to bring the Cup into the school Chapel for the first time: ‘Imagine being that guy,’ we’d say. Imagine being the hero. Imagine having hope in an ideal, going for it, and living up to it. Imagine being David, and defeating Goliath. This Saint Patrick’s Day, he just did.