It’s arrived. The day. The moment. The hour. I’ve been here many times before, of course, as both a player and a coach? We’re talking the time we beat Newbridge College in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup final. We’re talking the time I helped Seapoint to beat Bruff and avoid relegation to Division 2C of the All Ireland League. We’re talking the time I coached the Facebook tag rugby team to victory against Google in the bitter derby known as El Taxico.
And yet no matter how small or lorge the stakes, the feeling is always the same. My hort is beating like an actual snare drum.
The girls are nervous too. They know what’s at stake today. Castlerock College versus Newpork Comprehensive isn’t exactly Ireland versus England with a Grand Slam at stake, although you wouldn’t know it to look at their faces.
I give them the pre-match pep talk to end all pre-match pep talks. I’m there, “I know what you’re going through! Twenty-four years ago to this very day, I played in a schools cup final! It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was the happiest day of my life! Happier than the day I got married! Happier – yeah, no, definitely happier – than the day my children were born, with the exception of possibly Honor?”
Ross O’Carroll-Kelly: The two of them are staring at me like this is the worst thing I’ve ever done. It’s not even in the top 10
Ross O’Carroll-Kelly: Honor says Joshua just wants to be friends. Better than nothing I say, but I hate lying to the girl
They’re all nodding. It’s heady stuff – there’s no question about that.
I’m there, “What happened against this crowd a few months ago, I want you to put it behind you. I want you to go out there and show Newpork and the rest of the world how much you’ve learned since then! Lay down a morker! You are the stors of tomorrow! Future Ireland Grand Slam winners!
“And even though there are people in this school – specifically, your teachers – who’d say that today is a waste of valuable school hours, walk out there, listen to the roar of the crowd and tell yourselves, ‘Today is going to be the stort of my rugby journey!’”
I throw open the dressing-room door, then out they morch, led by Angelisa Gunning, my walk-through-walls captain and leader.
Listen to the roar of the crowd? The place is totally focking empty. Paddy’s Day might have once been the biggest day in the schools rugby calendar – nowadays, it’s just another bank holiday.
“Okay, use that silence!” I end up having to tell them while they’re doing their warm-up. “Channel that lack of interest! In a few years, people will be handing over hord cash to watch you play!”
I’m watching Newpork go through their own warm-up. It’s definitely not as professional as ours and they don’t look as up for this match as we do?
I’m thinking about this when I notice Barry O’Brien – the English teacher – standing on the sideline a few feet away from me.
I’m there, “Didn’t have you down as a rugby fan.”
“Oh, I’m not,” he goes. “I’m just taking a special interest in how they get on today – especially after their little protest last week. I hope they haven’t forgotten that they’re back to regular classes on Monday morning.”
I’m trying to think of something really cutting to say back when the Newpork coach all of a sudden sidles over to me. He goes, “Ross, is it?”
If Newpork was a rugby school, he wouldn’t need to ask.
I’m there, “Could be. What’s up?”
“Look, I, em, hate to bring this up,” he goes, “but one or two of our players wished your players good luck, but your players refused to shake their hands and called them losers.”
I’m there, “Yeah, no, on my instructions. Have you got a problem with that?”
“I thought this was supposed to be a friendly match,” he goes.
I’m like, “No such thing. The only people who think there is – are losers.”
It’s a zinger – no question. I leave him standing there with his mouth open while the players take their positions, the referee blows his whistle and we kick off.
We end up having the best of the early exchanges. But then, with only five minutes on the clock, Shosh Birney – our scrumhalf – throws a long, looping pass that finds a Newpork pair of hands and suddenly one of their players is sprinting through 50 yords of open field to put the ball down under the posts.
I’m, like, screaming at our players, going, “We practised this! We practised this!” but I’m also there, “Okay, don’t let your heads drop! We talked about this possibility! Reset and go again!”
And we do go again. But so do Newpork. Their full-back catches the ball from our re-stort and fourteen phases of play later – as well as one missed tackle by Angelisa Gunning – they’re under our posts again.
Okay, this isn’t the team I’ve been watching in training.
I go, “Girls, remember what I told you about Leinster versus Northampton in 2010! If Johnny Sexton was here, he’d tell you himself – you are never, ever beaten!”
The game re-storts. Literally 30 seconds later, a Newpork player is chorging through our midfield and Angelisa takes her out with an elbow to the face.
I’m like, “Fair challenge, ref! Come on, this isn’t soccer!” but – yeah, no – the dude sends her off.
I can’t even look at her as she leaves the pitch. She’s let me down in a big-time way. They all have? I’m looking around me, wondering if it’s possible to just slip away unseen. But both the Newpork coach and Barry O’Brien are staring at me with, like, wry smiles on their faces.
Literally seconds later, Newpork put together a string of passes and they’re over our line again. Their kicker nails her third conversion. It’s, like, 21-0, we’re down to 14 players and there’s only 12 minutes gone.
The referee walks over to me. For a minute, I think he’s going to have a word with me about one or two of the names I’ve called him? Instead, he goes, “What do you want to do? Do you want to concede?”
In that moment, all I’m thinking about is the damage that a 90-point tonking could do to my chances of ever being invited to become port of the Leinster coaching set-up.
“Er, yeah,” I go, out of the corner of my mouth.
The referee blows his whistle and spreads his orms wide. I turn around and stort walking away.
“What’s happening?” I hear our players go. “Where’s he going?”
Over my shoulder, I’m like, “Hord luck, girls! Enjoy school on Monday!”