When William Webb-Ellis allegedly picked up the ball at Rugby School in 1823, Rugby Football was born, and it spread rapidly across the country, initially through the Schools, and then through the Armed Forces and Universities. Perhaps the oldest school in Ulster, the Royal School became one of the first to adopt the game, with the earliest recorded match appearing in the Armagh Guardian in 1870. Indeed the tone of the report carries the implication that it was certainly not the first of such encounters, and maintains the question as to exactly when the game began in the School.
Schools Challenge Cup Winners 1881
The match between a Royal School Twelve and that of a Mr. J.C.K Fox deserves closer scrutiny as it illustrates the kind of interaction which brought the game to Ireland, and indeed took it further afield. John Charles Ker Fox was born at Castledillion and attended the Royal School from 1860 to 1862, before going to Bristol to complete his education at Clifton College. It was as an undergraduate of Trinity College, Dublin that he led his “Twelve” against the School, so may well have been instrumental in bringing the game to both Armagh and nurturing it in Dublin. Speculation aside, Fox was a remarkable man, later playing county cricket for Gloucester, and serving in the Life Guards in Egypt and South Africa, before retiring to London having reached the rank of major in the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers. The team lists for the day seem to indicate that the school side may well have been augmented by masters, and further research reveals that some, perhaps several, of the participants subsequently travelled the world, and presumably carrying the gospel of rugby with them.
The Ulster Schools’ Cup
Within a few years the game had gained a foothold in sufficient schools as to allow the first Schools’ Challenge Cup competition to be held in the 1875-76 season. The distinction of being the first winners of the competition fell to the Royal School, but not without some difficulty, taking the trophy after two replays against the Royal Academical Institution from Belfast. After further successes in the competition in the immediately ensuing years, the School gained an enviable reputation as an excellent nursery for the game.
Winners of the School's Cup 1977
The first decade of the competition saw the balance of power move to the city schools and the competition was dominated initially by Belfast “Inst.” and Methodist College, and later by Campbell College a supremacy which obtained until the middle of the twentieth century.
The decline in the fortunes of the Royal was initially to do with the availability of adequate competitive games in the immediate vicinity, but later more to do with the size of the school. It was accelerated just after the turn of the century when a disagreement between the Board and the Headmaster, Mr. Alaster McDonnell saw the latter move to Portora taking virtually all the pupils with him. This included most of the first XV and one, Dickie Lloyd, a brilliant outhalf who saw the Enniskillen School to three Schools’ Cup victories before going on to represent Ireland. A skilled exponent of the drop kick, Lloyd held the record for international drop goals until the 1980’s when it was overtaken by Olly Campbell.
School's Shield 1999
The Royal School appeared in three losing finals, in 1903, 1915 and 1927, before grave misfortune struck in December 1928 when a boy called William Rupert Trotter died on the field of play in a tragic accident. The Headmaster of the time, Mr. Henry Hirsch retired that year and was succeeded by Mr. Hutchings, who, after the cup competition of 1929, withdrew the School from all competitive rugby, effectively the Schools’ Cup. It wasn’t until 1965 on the appointment of Mr. Jim Brennan that the school re-entered the competition. However it was now a much more competitive affair with the big schools even bigger, and new forces to be reckoned with in B.R.A, Bangor Grammar and Ballymena Academy, to name a few. With a complement of 350 boys, the prospect of the School making a mark seemed slim. Nevertheless the enthusiasm of the new Headmaster, and the new phenomenon, the Rugby Coach, saw the Royal School’s star in the ascendancy again. A period in the seventies saw the team compete at the highest level, and, almost inevitably, contrive to win the coveted trophy in 1977. This, amazingly, managed to give the name of the School pride of place in the centre position on the new shield, as the first winners had been on the original shield one hundred years before. Since 1977 further success has proved elusive, despite the school remaining one of the best in the province. Nevertheless, the century has ended on a high note with the winning of the Subsidiary Shield in 1999.
The game is as healthy as ever, despite the fact that the Royal School remains one of the smallest of the participating establishments. Much of this is due to the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff, as well as the character of the School itself, which nurtures and encourages extra-curricular activities. Although Reggie McEwan had been the first coach in the modern sense, in the sixties Bill Wallace rendered the side capable of competing with any school. The seventies saw this bear fruit with the School reaching new heights throughout, and winning the Cup under the coaching of Robert Cardwell assisted by Hector Deane. This standard was maintained as Richard Maxwell took over the reins in the eighties, and extended the horizons with tours to Canada in partnership with Glenstal Abbey School from Limerick. The collaboration between Kenny Hooks and David Eakin has seen great strides in the quality of the play, and successful Canadian Tour in 1987 and a Far East tour in 2000. The next stage in development will be a tour to Rome in 2011.