CORK CONSTITUTION v ST. MARY'S COLLEGE, Dubarry Park, 3.35pm (live RTE Two)
AIB League Season's Form - Cork Constitution: LWLWWWWWDWWLWWW; St. Mary's College: WWWWLWLLLLWWWWW
AIB League Top Scorers - Cork Constitution: Points: Scott Deasy, Richie Lane 72 each; Tries: Richie Lane 8; St. Mary's College: Points: Gavin Dunne 126; Tries: Robin Copeland 9
Cork Constitution are well used to finishing top of the pile in the final AIB League table. They have done so in each of the last four seasons, but their 2008 final win over Garryowen stands out as their only play-off success since 1999.
The play-offs can topple the best of sides, and the Leesiders will be wary of what lies in wait at Dubarry Park on Saturday afternoon.
But they have reasons to be confident too. The Athlone venue was a happy hunting ground for them in January when despite losing lock Ian Nagle to a first half red card, Constitution battled fiercely to edge out Garryowen in a bruising AIB Cup final.
Players like Darragh Lyons, former captain Frank Cogan and Munster 'A' skipper Peter O'Mahony came to the fore that day, and this weekend Brian Walsh's men certainly have plenty of potential match winners to call on.
From wily winger Cronan Healy through to joint top scorer Richie Lane and talented scrum half Duncan Williams, who has secured a senior contract with Munster, Cork Con certainly have the personnel to cause St. Mary's College some damage.
When the sides met home-and-away in the league phase, Cork Con won 16-9 at Temple Hill in December and St. Mary's emerged as 24-20 victors at Templeville Road in March.
Coached by Peter Smyth, who played at hooker in the Dublin club's 2000 league-winning side, the current Mary's crop play an attractive brand of rugby, marshalled by Australian player-coach Shaun McCarthy at out-half.
But they are well able to mix up it and have plenty of bulk and strength up front, where former underage internationals Jack McGrath and Richie Sweeney revel in the front row and pacy lock Robin Copeland has shown his scoring touch with nine league tries this season.
McGrath's duel at scrum time with the Munster-capped Stephen Archer should be an interesting one, and if it is tight and a game to be won on penalties, then the Saints boast one of the best place-kickers in the league in full-back Gavin Dunne.
He helped himself to 14 points in the 24-23 semi-final victory over Old Belvedere and look for him to play a big role if St. Mary's are to annex a long-awaited league crown.
Darragh Fanning's wing duel with Lane will be another fascinating contest, and the individual match-ups all over the pitch add great spice to what is already a hugely anticipated game.
Cork Con were impressive 31-18 winners over local rivals Dolphin in their semi-final, qualifying for their third league decider in four years.
The motivation is there for both sides, as recent and past disappointments show.
St. Mary's number 8 and captain Hugh Hogan said: "Peter has told us of how much he hoped to add to that league medal from ten years ago - he was only 22 at the time and felt fairly confident he had plenty time to get another.
"But he has now moved on to coaching and the club hasn't won a league title since, so I guess it's a pretty tough competition to win."
Reflecting on the league final loss to Garryowen in 2007 and last year's shock semi-final defeat by Clontarf, Cork Con centre and skipper Evan Ryan says his side have learned some harsh lessons from those results.
"There were a lot of disappointed people in the club after losing two titles that were up for grabs but, I suppose, it makes you fight harder and want success all the more," he said.
"It’ll be tough, but we're looking forward to it. We have had two good games against Dolphin, two very tough games.
"We started quite slow into the season and lost two of our first three games. We kind of got into a run at things towards Christmas but all of those games were two and three pointers (wins), so we weren't hammering teams or anything like that.
"That's the way the league has gone recently, competition has been right up there and it's arguably the most exciting campaign I have played in.
"From the club point of view, the AIB Cup run, that was a confidence booster, but the league remains a different dynamic, even if this game is essentially a cup game rather than a league match."
Hogan's charges won the Leinster Senior Cup earlier in the season and are on a five-match winning streak in the AIB League.
The Saints of 2010 would dearly love to follow in the footsteps of their own coach, Trevor Brennan, Malcolm O'Kelly, Victor Costello, Denis Hickie and John McWeeney and bring the trophy back to Templeville Road.
Smyth said: "I've been saying since we turned our form around, that whoever is going to win the trophy is going to have to beat Cork Con somewhere. It's no surprise to me that they are in the final, they are a very good side.
"But we feel that we have earned our right to go in and give them some competition and give it our best shot against them. It's going to be a very tough task for us, but we're looking forward to it."
St. Mary's will field an unchanged team from that one-point semi-final win over 'Belvo, with try scorers Mark Sexton and Stephen Grissing combining once again at centre.
Munster commitments have taken Scott Deasy, Denis Hurley and Billy Holland out of equation for Cork Con, and Tom Gleeson is a late inclusion in the team to face the Cardiff Blues, as Keith Earls' groin strain rules him out.
Ireland Under-20 starlet Simon Zebo will start at full-back for Walsh's side, having featured on the wing for most of the season. Although Lane will more than likely switch with him at some stage.
Gleeson's absence opens the door for Alex Ryan to join his skipper in Cork Con's midfield, while O'Mahony's return from British & Irish Cup duty sees him rejoin Ed Leamy and Cogan in the back row, with Nagle partnering Merle O'Connell in the second row. Brian Hayes loses out in the reshuffle.
This is the blue riband of AIB League rugby, and we just feel the men in blue can upset the odds and end Leinster's Division 1 drought. But it will be close.
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: St. Mary's College to win by 1-5 points
CORK CONSTITUTION: Simon Zebo; Richie Lane, AN Other, Evan Ryan (capt), Cronan Healy; Darragh Lyons, Duncan Williams; Martin Gately, Robert Quinn, Stephen Archer, Merle O'Connell, Ian Nagle, Peter O'Mahony, Ed Leamy, Frank Cogan.
ST. MARY'S COLLEGE: Gavin Dunne; Ronan Doherty, Stephen Grissing, Mark Sexton, Darragh Fanning; Shaun McCarthy, Conor McPhillips; Jack McGrath, Richie Sweeney, Robert Sweeney, Gareth Logan, Robin Copeland, Damian Hall, Paul Nash, Hugh Hogan (capt).
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Darragh McCormack (both IRFU)
Related Links -
Cracker In Prospect Between Cork Con And St. Mary's