'Even losing one rankles forever' – How one teenager played in seven schools cup finals – but didn't win any of them

To lose one schools cup final is unfortunate.

To lose two is devastating.

To lose three puts you on the Mount Rushmore of schoolboy rugby heartbreak.

To lose four gives you cause to wonder whether a sacrifice is needed to appease the schools rugby gods.

To lose five? Even the Mayo footballers are looking at you with a pained expression.

Two students, JC Ferris and Don Roe Kissane, plundered the maximum schools cup haul of two junior medals followed by three at senior while in Blackrock College, but one pupil stands alone in a luckless alternate universe.

To take a positive spin on John Lacy’s tale is to point out that he holds the record for the most cup final appearances – seven in all when two replays are accounted for.

Unfortunately, his five runner-up medals also put him atop the podium as the most successful second-place finisher in the history of schools rugby.

Between 1991 and 1995, the Clongowes pupil played in three Junior Cup finals and four Senior Cup finals.

He played on teams that were favourites, and teams that were underdogs.

He played on teams that underachieved on the big day and teams that punched above their weight.

He played in finals where a missed a kick made all the difference, where a late try prolonged his agonising quest, where Irish weather conspired against him and where the opposition were gift-wrapped a try like a birthday present.

And most excruciatingly, he played in finals – all five losing efforts, in fact – that were decided by a single score.

Lacy played on teams that felled Blackrock, Terenure, St Michael’s, Belvedere and St Mary’s – but unfortunately never in an order that would allow him to pocket an elusive winners’ medal.

Irish Independent columnist and schools rugby expert Tony Ward says that the 6’3 centre was a special talent reminiscent of a current Ireland international.

“He had a huge presence,” Ward says.

“He was an obvious leader in the middle of the field. He was very good ball handler for a big man. It’s like when you look at Chris Farrell now. He wasn’t just a big guy who barged up the middle by any means.

“He was really tall, he would have been a second row at most other schools. He was really talented. For a big man, he had a lot of skill.”

Lacy was a 14-year-old centre in second year in 1991 when Clongowes were upset 9-7 by St Michael’s in the junior final, the school’s first ever cup success (the aforementioned self-inflicted try proving decisive after Clongowes dropped a ball on their own line).

A late conversion could have forced replay but we won’t hold it against the kicker – a touchline effort at U15 rugby is about as likely as a hole-in-one at the Masters.

Still, the first cut turned out to be, if not the deepest, then the one that still draws a rueful shake of the head whenever a finger is run over the scar.

A well-meaning teacher told the distraught players afterwards not to despair, as they would be back to play in more cup finals in the future.

Little did he know.

The following year saw St Mary’s triumph 15-12 in a Junior Cup final replay after the initial engagement ended 8-8. The Rathmines outfit were a strong team and this final is one that doesn’t need to be filed in the cabinet marked ‘ones that got away’, unlike the year previous. Move along, nothing much to see here.

1993 brought a first year at senior level for Lacy and almost ended in a final heist that Clooney, Pitt and Co. would have deemed too unrealistic.

Just how Clongowes managed to be battering away at the Terenure line in seek of a winning score in the closing moments – having lost every line-out, spent 75% of the contest camped on their own whitewash, while allowing talented ten Joey Muldowney punch holes in their defence all day – is one of the competition’s great mysteries.

Yet with minutes to go, Lacy had a sniff of nabbing a winning try himself – but the ball never came to him in the pivotal moment.

Four finals in and three defeats, but 1993 was as palatable as they come, like being treated to an unexpected Michelin Star meal but being deprived dessert. A spectacular comeback from 19-3 down dumped Denis Hickie’s star-studded St Mary’s side out in the quarter-final before Blackrock were dispatched comfortably in the final four (N.B – beware a sleeping Blackrock College).

Clongowes were led by the legendary schools coach Vinnie Murray, who – unfortunately from Lacy’s perspective – won senior cups with the school both before and after his time in the team.

Big scalps taken, a strong final showing against the odds and with a host of players returning, the prospect of ending the final voodoo was real in 1994… another replay, anyone?

Step this way – but first, a brief Gaelic footballing interlude.

The autumn of ’93 saw Lacy reach another end-game, this time as centre forward on the Meath minor team, who took on Cork as the curtain-raiser on All-Ireland final day at Croke Park.

Unfortunately, you could copy and paste elements from the oval ball deciders to fit the narrative on that occasion too. Early goals from Cork did the damage and a Meath side containing future All Stars and All-Ireland winners such as Trevor Giles, Ollie Murphy and Darren Fay couldn’t wrestle back the momentum.

But digressions aside…  just as in ’92, St Mary’s and Clongowes couldn’t be separated on St Patrick’s Day in 1994. The first game finished 14-14 and Clongowes missed five penalties, a conversion and struck the upright with a drop goal.

Time to perform a changing room exorcism?

While missing a sextet of place-kicks undoubtedly makes the drawn final a candidate for our aforementioned hard-luck cabinet, Clongowes could have few complaints at the manner with which the replay was decided, with future Ireland star Hickie slaloming through the cover to score one of the all-time great cup final tries.

That just leaves 1995. Lacy, after playing in six finals already, had one last chance to experience victory on the ultimate day. Just as in third year, he captained the side, although at this stage the leg injuries that eventually cut short his rugby career were already slowing him down.

The opposition for that final final were Blackrock, who have been an unusually quiet character in this story up to now.

The good news for Lacy is that the Blackrock team he faced in ’95 weren’t the most talented side they ever put out on the field.

The bad news is that the 17-year-old players he faced that day such as Leo Cullen, Bob Casey, Barry Gibney and Ciaran Scally would be christened with that moniker the following year when they were in sixth year.

If this was a pantomime, their St Patrick’s Day presence would have prompted screams of ‘he’s behind you’, as it dawns on the audience that the big ogre has awoken from a five-year slumber meaner and more dangerous than ever.

However, after holding The Dream Team 0.5 to an 8-0 half time advantage, it was reasonable to expect that Clongowes and Lacy would end their long wait for victory after all.

With a gale-force breeze blowing in their favour in the second half, they kicked an early penalty to reduce the gap to five. A converted try would end the hurt.

But the schools rugby gods are cruel and don’t care for sentiment. Or maybe that is the weather gods; the two often seem inextricably linked come cup time.

A biblical deluge rendered the final twenty minutes a non-event, with Lacy standing in the backline waiting for a ball to change his fortunes that would never come.

The final whistle peeped to signal Blackrock’s 61st triumph. What Lacy would have done for just one.

The expectation was that a club rugby career and possibly a stint with Leinster would replace the memories of those near-misses for Lacy. Nine knee operations over the subsequent years tell you all you need to know about his body’s ability to continue playing after his schooldays were over.

Those Donnybrook wins and Lansdowne losses would have to do.

Lacy played alongside Ian D’Arcy in 1994, brother of future Ireland and Leinster star Gordon, who had high praise for the unlucky centre in the Irish Independent’s schools rugby supplement this year.

“I had the pleasure of watching John Lacy play,” D’Arcy said.

“Had injury not played a part, I think he would have gone further in the sport. A superb understanding of space, making the ball do the work and putting others into space – like Will Greenwood.”

And while injuries scuppered Lacy’s chance of emulating the English centre, Tony Ward thinks that he can be proud of his unique place in schools rugby history.

“It’s phenomenal,” Ward says.

“When you got on through life, you regret even more not availing of the opportunity. Losing one rankles forever… but five! It is an amazing record.

“He was a really good schools player and I thought he was going to go on to be a really good senior player.

“I was amazed when he went off the radar but there were injuries there.

“It is a remarkable achievement by any stretch of the imagination. If you hear of a record like that, you immediately go to the Blackrock annuals but for a Clongowes player, it is amazing.”

John Lacy’s finals

1991 Junior Cup final – St Michael’s 9-7 Clongowes

1992 Junior Cup final – St Mary’s 8-8 Clongowes, St Mary’s 15-12 Clongowes

1993 Senior Cup final –  Terenure 8-3 Clongowes

1994 Senior Cup final – St Mary’s 14-14 Clongowes, St Mary’s 7-3 Clongowes

1995 Senior Cup final – Blackrock 8-3 Clongowes

1993 All-Ireland minor football final – Cork 2-7 Meath 0-9

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