Last week I happily packed off my two eldest (Aaron (10) and Lochlan (8)) to the Leinster rugby summer camp. The venue was the Clontarf rugby pitches on Castle Avenue on the northside of Dublin. To give some personal context to this I grew up within a stones throw of these pitches and spent a large part of my childhood sneaking through a gap in a hedge (that formed the external boundary at the time) in order to play rugby, soccer, gaelic football, hurling, cricket, hell we even gave frisbee a try. When the rugby pitches became too muddy or waterlogged to use we would simply shift to the adjacent cricket pitch instead. This did cause some consternation for the club groundsman particularly when he discovered us playing five-a-side, using kegs for goalposts no less, on his well manicured grass. As a kid I loved going to Tarf to watch rugby matches of all types and standards with my dad. I would spend my time running up and down the touchline trying to figure out where the ball was likely to be kicked out of play so that I could catch it (or more likely chase after it) and kick it back. From what I can remember the ball would spend an awful lot of time being walloped into touch back then so it was a pretty good way to get some exercise and also develop a bit of tactical knowledge around positioning, game management, etc. Although this probably left me ill suited to the ball-in-hand strategies / keeping the ball in play tactics of the modern game!
Given my proximity to the ground (and the fact that my dad was a rugby coach) it was pretty natural for me to sign up for mini-rugby at Clontarf from an early age, probably around 7 years old. Apart from the usual benefits of playing a team sport this also had the bonus of giving me an early lesson in south Dublin geography for this was where rugby was predominantly played at the time (and still is to some extent). Every week we would pile into some coaches’ car in a non health & safety focused way (well before the era of rear seatbelts) and head to an exotic location such as Seapoint, Terenure, Churchtown or if we were going to get a hammering Blackrock! Hey the only thing exotic on the northside at the time was the opening of Artane Castle, I mean a Quinsworth and a Penneys under one roof it didn’t get much better than that! One thing that always struck me about these highly cramped journeys was that it always seemed colder on the southside which appeared positively mountainous when compared to the lowlands of the northside. Perhaps this is a throwback to a particularly cold journey to Palmerstown when I can definitely remember getting frost-bite (or at least very numb hands which was the same to an 8 year old). On another southside trip I can remember playing a team who called themselves Guinnesses (“come on Guinnesses” was a frequent refrain) which I subsequently learned is a rugby club founded by staff at the brewery but at the time I knew of no such things and was just very confused by how often the letter “s” could appear in a name. God help anybody with a lisp.
Anyway back to the rugby camp and I couldn’t help noticing how much the place had changed. The hole in the hedge has gone and while the senior pitch looks pretty much the same the second and third pitches (as we used to call them) have been transformed into an all weather pitch complete with blue run off area. When I saw it first it instantly reminded me of Last Chance U on Netflix but without all the swearing! All the memories came flooding back to me, the thrill of spotting a gap and scoring a try, the pleasure of the deft offload, the satisfaction of the well executed tackle quickly followed by the pain from the poorly executed one! Clontarf are now one of the top clubs in the country (having won the All Ireland League “AIL” twice in the last decade) while in my day they were still struggling in the Leinster league and could never quite make it to the nirvana of the AIL. The best thing the club had going for it back then was that it was close to the airport so the Irish team would train there before heading for a plane to bring them to the location of their next 5 Nations match. Of course this brought out all the local kids searching for a brief glimpse of these amateur heroes. I even remember buying a notebook for autograph hunting purposes. I have 5 squiggles on it and to this day I have no idea as to the identity of the squiggle writers, probably some reserve forwards from Ulster or Connaught who weren’t quick enough to avoid the onrushing masses, unlike Ollie Campbell who was the main target.
This is my boys’ first experience of playing rugby given they have very much been indoctrinated in the church of GAA until now. You see Glasnevin is certainly not a stones through from Castle Avenue, and while the journey by car is not an overly long one it is on a different level compared to my own childhood jaunt to those pitches of dreams. Indeed on arrival at camp on Monday I was surprised by the number of kids from the Glasnevin Drumcondra area who were in attendance at the camp. I suppose Clontarf has become a rallying point / Mecca for rugby on the northside of Dublin. To capitalise on this they probably should have thrown in a guided tour to the childhood home of BOD (Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s greatest rugby player and former Clontarf resident until his head was turned by a southside lass). His Dad was my doctor don’t you know!
The camp itself is very well organised with the usual plethora of multi-coloured cones and enthusiastic coaches. The appearance of the Pro14 trophy and a visitation from two members of the current Leinster squad added a bit of glamour to proceedings. Although I did have a chuckle when I asked my boys to divulge the owners of the autographs on their jerseys and they responded with the same blankness that I had experienced 35 years previously! Apologies to Scott Fardy and Joe Tomane!!