| 8.4°C Belfast

How bizarre twist meant the 1911 Schools' Cup was the only final not to be played until this season

 

Close

No conclusion: Wallace High celebrate their Schools' Cup semi-final win last month, but there won't be a champion for only the second time in history

No conclusion: Wallace High celebrate their Schools' Cup semi-final win last month, but there won't be a champion for only the second time in history

Photo by John Dickson / DICKSOND

No conclusion: Wallace High celebrate their Schools' Cup semi-final win last month, but there won't be a champion for only the second time in history

Two World Wars, the Troubles, Foot and Mouth, the Home Rule Crisis and all manner of unseasonable storms and freezes - not quite all four horsemen of the apocalypse but a healthy percentage nonetheless, and the Schools' Cup has survived them all. The tournament's oft-repeated tag-line of rugby's second oldest competition is nothing if not hard-earned.

So while it was certainly no surprise last month to hear that the sporting lockdown caused by Covid-19 had put paid to the planned final between Wallace and Armagh - and in the grand scheme of global events only a footnote - a St Patrick's Day with no schoolboy showpiece at Ravenhill still felt an oddity even in these unprecedented times.

An oddity but not a one-off. While other concerns - such as Foot and Mouth in 2001 - have pushed the game beyond its traditional March 17 date, the competition has gone unfinished on only one prior occasion.

Given all the seismic events that for more than a century have been played through, surely the cause for cancellation was one of historic significance? Not quite...

In 1911 - the year of George V's coronation, the first Chevrolet motorcar and the maiden voyage of the White Star Line's RMS Olympic - the 37th edition of the Schools' Cup was beset by a very local controversy.

What would later become a full-blown crisis for the Ulster Branch began in innocuous circumstances.

The draw was held one late January evening, with Methody and Inst no less paired to meet in the first round, as were Royal School Armagh and Dungannon, with byes to the second stage for the rest, including champions Campbell who were dealt a trip to Larne Grammar.

Evidently in days before the sporting world fell in love with underdog tales, Larne gave word that they feared they would not be able to offer a "respectable show" and requested to bolster their ranks with ineligible players for what would instead only be a friendly with Campbell advancing regardless of the result.

While there was a sense of no harm, no foul as the east Belfast school merely advanced as expected, it was at the semi-final stage where complications arose.

Amidst growing complaints in past seasons about the fairness of travel, the Branch left it to the headmasters of the schools involved to work out a fair deal for where the final four ties would be played.

Unsurprisingly, with the old adage of turkeys voting for Christmas coming to mind, no school volunteered to play away from home with the Branch, back to the drawing board, having to resort to the old tried and tested method of first out of the hat getting the sought-after home advantage.

Upon hearing they'd have to travel to Belfast, Coleraine simply refused. By this stage six-time winners of the competition, they'd been beaten finalists at Balmoral for three years in succession, the aggregate of the losses 101-0.

Evidently unable to face the prospect of another journey down to Belfast, the school gave the Branch an ultimatum - the game would be played in Coleraine or not at all. The Branch chose the latter and Campbell were off to another final.

Methody, themselves having been one of the most vocal advocates of change after frequent away draws, reluctantly made their way to Portora.

The Fermanagh school were victorious and, with the sound of the final whistle still reverberating in the ears, composed a letter to the Branch stating they would only play the final if Campbell agreed to a semi-final in Coleraine.

Quite what sparked the show of solidarity remains unclear, not lost to time but never uncovered. The Northern Whig reporting only that it was "common knowledge" Portora had made up their mind before the clash with Methody had even begun while the News Letter said they did not "at present intend to offer any opinion on the matter".

Nowhere was there more vexation than the pages of this paper where the front page bemoaned "the fiasco which has robbed the rugby-loving public of one of the most attractive fixtures of the season" while declaring that neither Coleraine nor Portora had a "leg to stand on".

The net result was a forfeit but, given that they'd yet to play a game in the competition, Campbell could hardly be awarded the title. Instead it was to be the sole asterix in the competition's history. Until now.

Belfast Telegraph