Rockwell Senior Rugby Team
Tipperary Association Yearbook 1981/82, pp 37-39
Rockwell and rugby go together in the public mind. This is so despite the fact that cricket was once as strong in the college. Hurling has also made an impact: the first Harty Cup to be played in 1918 was won by Rockwell and it was captured on a number of occasions after that. Gaelic football has also had its place and become more prominent in recent years. Athletics have had a long and impressive history and the College of Science Cup was won so often that at times it seemed a college possession. Despite all these impressive achievements in other sporting areas rugby dominates in the public mind as well as within-the college grounds. This continues to be so after a decade that has seen few victories coming the way of Rockwell.
This domination of the game of rugby can be measured in many ways. The records for the year 1963-64 show that 70 games were played by the college in all grades against outside opposition. In the year 1959-60 Pat Leyden played twenty-six games, won fifteen, drew one, lost ten and had 252 points scored for and 200 against. In the year 1980-81 the Junior Cup team put in about one hundred and fifty hours practice between September and the first round. Andrew Butler, Matt O' Mahony and Jim Harrington played on Junior and Senior Cup teams for four consecutive years and never suffered a defeat. Between them they won twelve cup medals. The college has won the Munster Schools cup on twenty occasions. Between 1897 and 1981 sixteen past pupils of Rockwell have been capped for Ireland.
Of all the memories associated with Rockwell and rugby the most exciting surround the senior teams that represented Rockwell for years in the Munster Senior cup. These teams are remembered for stirring encounters against Garryowen and Cork Constitution and for great personalities like the Ryan brothers. These teams were made up of past pupils, professors and prefects and the odd student who had the size and strength of a man. Rockwell entered a team for the first time in the Munster Senior Cup in 1894 and played yearly until 1916. That year marked the end of an era. Fr. John Byrne became President in 1916 and cricket and rugby gave way to Gaelic football and hurling. Rockwell didn't re-enter the Senior Cup for another twelve years and played in it for a few years in the early thirties. During this long period they failed to have their name inscribed on the cup. There is no explanation for this failure. In contrast to this succession of defeats are the many victories of Garryowen, especially in the pre-war period.
Rockwell played in the first round of the Munster Senior Cup in 1894 and went out by a single score to Garryowen. "A notable event was the entry to the tourney of that plucky but unlucky club - Rockwell. They ran the redoubtable Limerick club to a single score - a performance suggestive of many a hard fight between the same clubs in succeeding seasons." Rockwell weren't long making an impact in the province. In the year 1896 the really noteworthy event of the year was the ending of Garryowen's long tenure of the cup. After a very exciting game Rockwell knocked them out by a single point. Rockwell were favourites for the final but were beaten unexpectedly by University College, Cork.
The 1897 season produced some stirring events. For the third time in succession Rockwell and Garryowen were drawn together. Unfortunately a very regrettable scene occurred at the Market's Field, the venue for the game. As Mick Ryan himself stated it: "On leaviing the field I received the full force of a desperate kick on the point of the hip. I fell to the ground but managed to seize my assailant by the leg and, on rising, I asked the Garryowen captain if he knew him. He admitted he did. I was carried to the dressing room in great pain and was in intense agony on the journey home." The conduct of the crowd all through the match was hostile to Rockwell and the referee. Insults poured in from the touchline and incitements to violence were frequent. After the match several members of the Rockwell team were assaulted and struck. Paddy Kavanagh received a violent blow on the back of the head. Another was struck in the eye and many kicked in the shins. Help came from the R.I.C. who escorted the players back to the hotel.
There was an investigation by the I.R.F.U. into the affair and the committee decided (1) no representative match be played in Limerick Market Fields until it was properly fenced, (2) the club on whose ground the match is played is responsible for the spectators behaviour and (3) in future any misconduct towards players or referee will be severely dealt with. It all sounds very familiar!
The mention of Mick Ryan brings up the story of the famous brothers, Mike and Jack Ryan. They were legends in their own lifetimes and the legend hasn't faded in the meantime. Mike was capped 17 times for Ireland between 1897 and 1904 and Jack 14 times over the same period. Mike was chosen in 1905 but refused to play because Jack wasn't picked. Mike didn't begin to play rugby until he was 24 years old and brother Jack was already playing. Both started off as backs but soon changed to the forwards. Both played on the Triple Crown team in 1899 when Ireland defeated England, Scotland and Wales for the first time. Press accounts of the Triple Crown matches gave prominence to the contribution of the Ryans. In every second line we find the same note. "Mike Ryan came through on a couple of occasions in grand style". "The Ryans put in a lot of work and were assisted by Ahern and McCoull". "Of the forwards Mike Ryan and Jack were far and away the best, the elder brother being always on the ball". "Mick Ryan's play was brilliant, especially in the second half, when he knocked the English backs about like nine pins. He was simply irresistible and the soft surface of the field bore a deep impression of many a Saxon's form that Mick laid low".
The Scottish Match
Against Scotland the well publicised incident happened: Mike Ryan slung the biggest Scottish man, McEwan, into the spectators. "He was playing a great game. Now, from our twenty-five he meant to get through, I saw him coming, teeth bared, jaw set, determination written all over him. Five yards from me he hurled himself for me. I got one arm well round him, swung around with him and let go; he sailed out into the crowd. There was a great hush for a moment in which you would have heard a pin drop. It was looked on as a prodigious feat of strength, but it was his own size and speed that helped me. He resumed the game nothing the worse".
Only five players played in all three matches - Louis Magee, James Sealy, Billy Byron, and the two Ryans. "Jack and I returned home. At the Racecourse Cross we were held up by all Rockwell. To a man they had turned out to welcome us. They took the horse from between the shafts and insisted on pulling us all the way to the college we loved, though our hands ached from all the fierce handclasps we received."
Jakes McCarthy, an outstanding sportswriter of the time, once described a famous try by Mike Ryan with the memorable phrase "crossing the line, his frame festooned by Saxons". The Ryans dined in Rockwell twice a week and played rugby with the boys. They were known for their gentleness and never hurt a student. Mike was particularly popular and Jack was the orator. Jack is remembered starting a speech in his good Tipperary accent: "There are moments in life . .." and the crowd applauding so much that he had to begin three times. Mike played for Bective at the time because a player could play for two teams in different provinces. Bective was one of a small number of Catholic clubs.
Mike played his last game of rugby 1912 for a wager. He hadn't played for years: "Mr. O'Flaherty, Science Professor in Rockwell, laid me a wager that if I played in Rockwell I would not score. I took him on. Rockwell boys on the touchline made almost as much noise as all the spectators at an International. I had put on a good deal of avoirdupois and did not feel quite up to International form. I am afraid that the winning of the wager did not seem a possibility. However I kept going. About five minutes from the end my chance came. One of our centres cut through nicely. I think he could have got over on his own, but he elected to send to me. I took the pass somehow and attained the line. It was the most memorable and, I think, the most applauded score of my life, but nothing would induce me to accept another wager".
The Ryans were the backbone of the Rockwell team. In the Munster Cup in 1898 Rockwell and Garryowen once more came together in the semi-final. Rockwell had a very fine team but they only succeeded in drawing and consequent on the dissatisfaction felt at the decision of the Cup Committee regarding the replay, Dr. Crehan, President of Rockwell, withdrew his team. It was an unfortunate debacle because Rockwell ought to have won the cup. In the following year they did beat Garryowen only to be defeated by D.C.C. Rockwell reached the final in 1901 but were beaten by Garryowen. Rockwell were regarded as the best team in 1902 but were beaten by Garryowen in a replay of the second round.
One of the players on the 1904 team was Eamon de Valera, who spent the year 1904-05 as a teacher of mathematics at the college. He was known as "the lanky Spaniard" and was paid £25 for his year's work. He lived in the college. "With Jack Barrott he helped to form a three-quarter combination which helped Rockwell to the final of the Munster cup and earned for him a place in a Munster trial for the inter-provincial team. It is possible that he came closer to an Irish cap than was realised at the time. Ireland was looking for a full-back and de Valera was tried out of his usual place in that position. His opposite number later played full-back for Ireland for many years. But de Valera's great chance eluded him. A high kick came his way with the field spreadeagled. If he could have caught it he would almost certainly have scored a spectacular try. But it bounced off his chest and the opportunity did not return." Looking back later he realised that this was the first indication of defective eyesight. So after this he found difficulty reading and took to glasses, which he always wore subsequently.
In 1907 Rockwell got a walkover from Cork Constitution as a result of a row about a venue but were beaten by Garryowen in the final. The 1910 competition opened with two very hot and exciting struggles between Rockwell and Garryowen. The reply of the first round took place in Clonmel. Four hundred and seventy Garryowen supporters travelled by special train to the match. Rockwell crossed the line
once in the game. "Towards the close of the match, when Garryowen were unable to equalise and the match was lost, their supporters became aggressive in the epithets they started hurling at the referee . When the final whistle sounded a very unseemly scene took place. The referee was instantly surrounded by a number of persons who adopted a very menacing attitude towards Mr. O'Regan". He was saved by the intervention of some prominent persons. Later years and equal efforts failed to bring success to Rockwell.
After a lapse of twelve years when the team took part again in 1928 and for a few subsequent years after that victory continued to elude them. However, any history of the game in Munster must remember the name of Rockwell and the great brothers who made the name famous. Fr. Dan Murphy, at 91 , still alive with memories from those pre-war days sums it all up when he says: "Rugby filled our lives; rugby players were our heroes".