This was a new type of season for the Royal Irish Rugby Society.
And while it was a long way from an easy season, it turned out to be a memorable one – and a successful one as well. That was true whatever the postseason brought.
The Royal Irish, a team made up of student athletes from Cathedral and Bishop Chatard high schools, long has been one of the nation’s top high school rugby programs. The program in 2022 overcame adversity to continue to achieve that status.
“Rugby is a game of attrition and this has been a season of attrition,” Royal Irish third-year head coach David Snyder said in mid-May. “We’ve had some peaks and valleys.”
The Royal Irish, after two early losses to nationally-ranked programs, finished the 2022 regular season unbeaten against teams from Indiana. They entered the postseason 8-2, then lost to Penn in overtime 32-29, in the boys national high school rugby championships in the semifinal of the Tier II bracket in Elkhart, Ind.
The Royal Irish beat Raleigh/Charlotte, 34-17, in the first round at the national tournament. They were scheduled to participate in the state tournament on Memorial Day Weekend.
“We’ve just tried to be healthy and prepare the entire season for the preseason,” Snyder said. “We haven’t won by large margins, but we don’t look at the score. We look at Ws and Ls.”
The Royal Irish’s season was marked by major adversity off the field, with Jacob Bordenet – a senior from Cathedral – sustaining serious head injuries in an automobile accident early in the season. Bordenet, one of the program’s top athletes who missed his junior season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, returned from his injuries to play the second half of the 2022 season.
“He has been a huge part of this season’s success,” Snyder said. “He was in training then he was gone. He’s better than OK. He has been amazing. He’s been a real inspiration. The guy is a real solider. He has it in him.”
The Royal Irish received more difficult news when Chatard senior Todd Kelsey was diagnosed with cancer, a diagnosis that further galvanized an already strong bond within the team.
“Everyone was focused on winning this for him,” Snyder said.
If overcoming adversity and bonding defined the season, Snyder said that was unsurprising. He said there is a sense of pride and togetherness in rugby – and in the Royal Irish program.
“It’s part of the culture they grow up into,” he said. “They’ve all played CYO sports and played together. You’ve got some real senior leadership. We’ve been able to overcome because of each other.
“Rugby is a family. It really is. It’s different than any other spot. It’s the culture. It’s really more of a life lesson than a sport.”
And while COVID-19 has reduced the numbers in a traditionally-strong Royal Irish program, Snyder said measures to renew participation were strong this spring.
“It was the first year in memory there hasn’t been a jayvee team; it was just the varsity,” Snyder said. “That’s a real difficult thing (for the younger players). When guys are in practice all week, you want them to be able to play a game on the weekend. We’ve gotten scores up so we could get leads and get guys off the field. Guys have sacrificed some playing time, but we have a responsibility to everyone.”
Snyder said the Royal Irish, long known as a smaller and faster team, again played to that strength in 2022 with a back line that developed into one of the best in the nation. A team strength was ability to work together and know where teammates were on the field.
“It’s about timing and position and knowing the game,” Snyder said. “It’s a chess game. You have to know two players ahead what’s going to happen, so you’re not out of position. We pride ourselves on playing front-foot rugby.
“We always want to be moving forward, going as fast and hard as you can to be in the best shape and be better than the other team. That’s one of the secrets to our success.”
The Royal Irish in 2022 were led by a core group of seniors from Cathedral: Mikey Greene, Noah Kaplan, Ian Neberieza and Gabe Plummer.
“The leadership is something special,” Snyder said. “The difference between a kid as a junior and senior is really what tells you what kind of season you’re going to have. They’re used to winning, but what happened last season doesn’t guarantee what’s going to happen the following season.
“They always want to be the next great Royal Irish team. There is a legacy that they want to be remembered like the teams that have been remembered. It has been the hardest one to get to that point, but they still found a way to get there at the end of the season.
“This is a group of kids that just found a way to get it done. I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”
For updates on the Irish in the postseason, please visit gocathedral.com.