Public Schools Old Boys vs Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club encounter

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The city of Dublin has had a long and (mainly) happy association with pubs over the years.  Through the writings of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Myles na Gopaleen and others, pubs have taken on an almost mystical, romantic quality.   They are places where the drink flows easily against a backdrop of a series of uninterrupted monologues (the Dublin pub equivalent of ‘conversations) among pub patrons, all of whom are self-appointed experts in their fields.    Despite drink/driving restrictions, smoking bans and punitive excise duties, pubs are still very much part of the fabric of Dublin life.

It was ‘pubs’ of a different sort, however, that featured in Dublin last weekend (9 February).  It was the occasion of the arrival in Dublin of the ‘PUBS’, the abbreviated, colloquial name for the Public School Old Boys’ Lawn Tennis Association (PSOBLTA) who play an annual tennis match against Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club.   Interestingly, the tennis-;playing ‘PUBS’ sobriquet has a reminiscent ring of cricket’s Taverner’s Clubs – I suppose, highlighting the historically close links between sport and those locations for the dispensing of liquid (mostly alcoholic) refreshment!

Organised specifically with this aim in mind, this year’s event again took place on the weekend of the Ireland v England rugby international at the Aviva Stadium – played on the Sunday and allowing for the tennis players to attend the rugby (or at least to participate in the general pre- and post-match  merriment the day following the tennis match).

The Public Schools Old Boy’s Lawn Tennis Association has been in existence since 1929.  The Association arranges regular fixtures against several of the UK’s top public schools, a number of high-profile tennis clubs and universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol.  Among the Association’s aims is the encouragement of the playing of grass tennis through the arrangement of fixtures on grass at school’s level.  Given the incomparable quality of grass tennis (not just in the writer’s view) and the growing recognition of grass events at ATP and WTA level, this is a highly worthy aim.

The fixture is played every year, in alternate years at Fitzwilliam and the All-England LTC at Wimbledon respectively.  The very first fixture against Fitzwilliam was held in 1962 and has taken place every year since then with the exception of one.  The PUBS have won the fixture on 28 occasions, Fitzwilliam have won 22 and one has been drawn – very competitive by any measure.

Players play for the Courtney Salver, donated in memory of a former President of Fitzwilliam, Col. Courtney (President 1896-1927) who was also a former Chairman of the PSOBLTA.    In the early years of the event, the PUBS tended to dominate, but in the last 20 years or so, Fitzwilliam has managed to improve on its ‘batting average’.  Looking down the chronology of fixtures, home advantage seems to play a part in failure or success, not unlike most sports.

The fixture survives and thrives on the basis of strong support from both sides.  Former President and Chairman of Queen’s Club, Ivar Boden and his son Conor have been stalwart supporters of the fixture over many years, the former also a long-standing and respected member of Fitzwilliam and Conor himself a regular competitor in the event over the years.  These kinds of connections across the Irish Sea act as the cement that has sustained the event over the years.

This year’s PUBS team all hail from respected English schools: Charterhouse, Bradfield, Framlingham, KCS Wimbledon, Colstons’ and Bristol Grammar School.  Their club affiliations range from the All-England to Queen’s to West Side to Epsom.  Not to be outdone in the ‘elite’ stakes, Fitzwilliam’s 2013 team all hailed from some of Dublin and Ireland’s elite schools: Castleknock, Gonzaga, St. Michael’s, Blackrock, Belvedere and C.B.C. Monkstown.  Teams were fairly evenly-balanced and while Fitzwilliam may have had the advantage of youth, the PUBS would have had the edge in terms of experience.

Teams comprise six people.  Matches are all doubles with each pairing playing one match against each of the opposing team’s pairings (each pairing playing 3 matches with 9 matches in the fixture overall).  Given the unpredictable Dublin weather, all matches were played indoor.  Team lists were as follows:

FITZWILLIAM LTC

Fiachra Lennon

Patrick Doran

Andrew Hogan

Gavin Gilhawley

Ben Dillon

Rob Dudley

PSOBLTA

Edward Cooper

Jonathan Cooper

Chris Clark

Charles Billington

James Acheson-Gray

James Compton-Dando

The morning session was won by Fitzwilliam 2-1.  Following lunch, the second session was won 3-0 by Fitzwilliam.  At this point, the 9-match fixture was effectively won by Fitzwilliam 5-1.  Despite this, the competitive spirit remained during the third and final session.   The final result was 8-1 in Fitzwilliam’s favour, the Courtney Salver which had travelled across the Irish Sea in 2012, returning again to Dublin for 2013.

Most would agree that the final result was not necessarily an accurate reflection of the closeness of many of the individual matches.  Matches were close with two being decided by champion tie-breaks.  In the true Corinthian spirit, these fixtures are less about winning and more about the enjoyment of participation, the hospitality offered and the sporting and social connections cemented.

As usual, Fitzwilliam provided generous hospitality to their guests, both over lunch and at the post-match dinner in the Club on Saturday night.  As is customary, the President of Fitzwilliam, Frank Egan said a few words at the dinner.  It was an evening enjoyed by all.

Word has it that players adjourned later to a number of Dublin hostelries.  No official record exists of the details of these nocturnal peregrinations and as a great supporter of the dignity of this annual event, the current writer would anyway be bound by discretion to remain completely and eternally silent!   Given the ‘night that was in it’,  one could no doubt imagine, however, that there was some ‘rubbing of shoulders’ with rugby supporters, both Irish and English, in Dublin’s many hearty and boisterous pubs.  Also playing at Fitzwilliam that weekend were the UK Jesters, a travelling squash team comprising players from a number of UK clubs who after their own matches, joined in the hospitality with the tennis players.

All participants in the weekend can point to a successful and enjoyable fixture in the honourable tradition of the event over the years.  A sort of justice was provided by the Irish winning the tennis and the English, the rugby – each side came away with something from the weekend.    These events are always very popular and maintain a healthy amateur tradition in a sporting world (and a world generally) often dominated by acquisitive, commercial values and ‘win at all costs’ attitudes.  Long may these events continue.

Paul McElhinney

February 12th 2013    

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