‘I’ve won Heineken Cups, I’ve played for Ireland, I’ve been to a World Cup; but some of my best rugby memories come from my days in Clongowes. Every kid dreams of playing professionally, I was no different, but back then you’re not playing for personal gain, you’re playing with and for your best mates… and we had some craic!’
When Aurélien Rougerie struggled to compose himself following a shuddering hit against Leinster in a 2010 Heineken Cup clash, the international rugby world stood up with greater assurance and finally took notice of Fergus McFadden (pictured above on the right with Dave Kearney in the centre and the author of this piece on the left…). Less than two months later the combative centre/winger was facing the Clermont captain again, this time in the green of Ireland (on his try-scoring home debut) and a remarkable rise to prominence was complete.
It had not always seemed thus for the Kildare man. Though freakishly capable at any sport he threw his hand to, rugby remained a little beyond the means of a diminutive whippersnapper. A footballing out-half in his first year at Clongowes Wood, McFadden quickly emerged as a prodigious talent. Such potential however was undermined by a fiery temper and small frame to the extent that while coaches yearned to pick him, ultimately they feared for his safety.
We have since learned that they needn’t have bothered.
Overage for Junior Cup rugby in 3rd Year (the age requirement has since changed), it would have been easy for the youngster to opt out of the sport entirely. However, such was McFadden’s competitive conviction that, despite warning, he pushed himself towards the next available stage: the senior ranks.
For two years McFadden toiled away in the lower tiers perfecting skills and felling bigger opponents. Game after game the eyes of the players would light up as McFadden, clad in overflowing jersey and scrum-cap, took up his place opposite them. Meanwhile his teammates would look on with great amusement as each gallant competitor was swiftly returned from whence they came.
By the summer of 2003, McFadden had earned greater notoriety for his classroom antics rather than his rugby prowess. However, he returned the following September with a steely resolve to put that right. Indeed, within moments of the first day of senior trials, McFadden stopped his opposite number dead in his tracks, claimed the loose ball and danced his way through several would-be defenders to the try-line. He was quickly hauled off to great applause. ‘Things just kind of took off I suppose…’
A quiet success
With Rob Kearney at fullback in a team replete with the dogged determination that had become synonymous with Clongowes sides, McFadden and his peers embarked on a journey that would see them through to the final of 2004. Although Kearney stole the limelight, McFadden was the quiet success of the campaign, quickly becoming a crowd favourite with his now customary aggression. ‘While there are two sides to the story, that day in Lansdowne is probably the highlight of my schools’ career. To be there at the end of a great season with thousands of people willing us on against one of our greatest rivals is a special memory. Blackrock wore us down in the end and we were obviously disappointed but in the back of my mind I knew I had another year to put it right.’
With McFadden as vice-captain, allied to the return of several teammates and the introduction of David Kearney, big things were expected of Clongowes in 2004/5. Unfortunately they met a rejuvenated St. Michael’s College at the first hurdle. Despite going into injury-time in the lead, a controversial score put paid to McFadden’s season. ‘That day and the days that followed were probably the toughest of all my six years in Clongowes. I couldn’t stop thinking about the manner in which we lost. I was absolutely gutted for the group. In the end I had to go home for a few days to clear my head.’
Schools’ rugby will always celebrate the hero. In recent memory, Gordon D’Arcy (1998), Luke Fitzgerald (2006) and Brendan Macken (2009) have all garnered acclaim as they guided their school to glory in the Senior Cup. McFadden never had it all his own way. In a tale that echoes that of Roy Keane’s travails, he was always written off for his size, always in someone else’s shadow and never got the just rewards for his efforts. However, McFadden’s fierce determination has seen him rise from the ignominy of a first-round schools’ defeat to the pinnacle of the game.
‘The schools’ system in Leinster is the best in Ireland. It’s quite amazing how so many players are picked up and given the opportunity to experience rugby from a professional perspective. Had it not been in place when I was coming through, I’m not sure if I would be here today.’
Mr Richard McElwee