CORK CONSTITUTION 18 GARRYOWEN 8, Musgrave Park
Scorers: Cork Constitution: Pens: Jeremy Manning 5; Drop: Jeremy Manning
Garryowen: Try: Lorcan Bourke; Pen: Conor Kilroy
Manning, the New Zealand-born out-half, decided what was a cagey and disappointing final at Musgrave Park, with defending champions Garryowen losing for the first time in 12 league games.
Garryowen full-back Conor Kilroy opened the scoring with a third-minute penalty but three Manning strikes had Con 9-3 ahead at half-time.
Manning landed two more penalties and a drop goal and Con, who led 18-3 by the hour mark, held firm despite losing hooker Des Murray to the sin-bin and conceding a 74th-minute try to Garryowen replacement Lorcan Bourke.
Since that start of the century, Cork Con have topped the Division One table on five occasions but this is their first play-off title win since the likes of Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan, Frankie Sheahan and current coach Brian Walsh drove them to glory nine years ago.
Besides Walsh, there is another link back to that 1999-winning side. John Kelly, who bowed out with Munster this season, lined out at outside centre for that Lansdowne Road final.
The 34-year-old Kelly took his position on the right wing for Con today and played his part in the Leesiders' 15th win in 17 league games this season.
AIB man-of-the-match Manning overcame a slight knock to take his place in the Con team, while Garryowen captain Paul Neville, whose participation was in doubt due to a shoulder injury, passed a late fitness test.
Garryowen, bidding to join Shannon as the only back-to-back league winners, came into the final full of confidence after last weekend's impressive 31-6 victory over their Limerick foes Shannon.
A pinpoint conversion from Eoghan Hickey gave Garryowen a 16-15 win over Con in last season's final and they edged ahead early on in this rematch.
Scrum half Gerry Hurley was interfered with as he tried to the ball away from a midfield ruck and full-back Kilroy stepped up to boom the 37-metre kick through the posts.
Con's forwards put together some good phases, picking and driving off the base of rucks, but a thumping hit from Garryowen lock Frank McKenna produced a good turnover.
Garryowen's pack were making their presence felt with some aggressive defending and their scrum looked the stronger with Rory Brosnan having the edge on Tim Ryan.
The Dooradoyle residents were able to line out with Munster duo Kieran Lewis and Keith Earls in their back-line, with left winger Earls fit enough to start despite a 50-minute stint for Munster against Glasgow Warriors last night.
Con wide man Cronan Healy, now the club's record try scorer in the league, made a good start by taking a high ball and then threatening in midfield with a half-break.
It took a fine Mark Melbourne tackle to halt Healy's progress and the game remained tight and forwards-dominated throughout the 80 minutes with little in the way of a line break.
Manning was unfortunate not to open Con's account in the 19th-minute when he checked back onto his right boot and pinged a snap drop goal attempt off the post.
The rebounded ball was knocked on by Hurley however and a subsequent offence by Neville, who broke too early from a scrum, saw Manning land a simple 23rd-minute penalty from 10 metres out.
Garryowen responded well, with front rowers Damien Varley and Brosnan rumbling forward with ball in hand, and they carved out a second penalty chance for Kilroy.
The full-back's left-sided effort from the ten-metre line was seen on television replays to have gone over the crossbar, but touch judges Olan Trevor and Peter Fitzgibbon ruled that the kick had dropped short and the score-line remained 3-3.
That error was compounded when Manning landed a central penalty to nudge Con ahead and despite being behind a struggling scrum, the 22-year-old Kiwi grew in influence as the game.
Garryowen threatened to break through the Con rearguard in the 38th-minute when Anthony Kavanagh flicked a lovely back-handed pass to Earls but the Munster winger just failed to gather it.
In the second-minute of injury-time, Manning dusted himself off after shipping a late challenge from Cillian O'Boyle to kick his third successful penalty and send Con in at the break with a six-point buffer.
Manning's third penalty also saw the Temple Hill-based club become only the second club to top 5000 points in AIB League history.
Con looked the hungrier side on the restart and another Manning penalty, this time from the left, had Walsh's charges 12-3 ahead.
With Garryowen out-half Willie Staunton struggling to have an influence and his half-back partner Hurley hampered by Con's work at the breakdown, Manning began to put him stamp on the game.
The Con number 10 sent away a superb touch-finder in the 47th-minute, bringing play into the Garryowen 22. Varley failed to find his man and after carries from the tireless Billy Holland and Brendan Cuttriss, Manning picked out a fine drop goal.
Garryowen threatened immediately at the other end with Hurley kicked a penalty to touch. From the close-in lineout, they looked poised to score but Con won a relieving penalty and cleared the danger.
Dara O'Sullivan's men needed to close the gap but a Kilroy penalty miss, after a ruck infringement from Tom Gleeson, did little for their confidence.
Garryowen looked a tired team, particularly in the third quarter when Manning kicked nine points without reply.
There was a growing sense that Garryowen might have played their final last weekend when they hammered Shannon and a lineout infringement allowed Manning to notch his fifth successful penalty from the ten-metre line.
The champions needed a spark from somewhere and Hurley tried to supply it when he set off on an encouraging run, breathing a bit of life into the light Blues.
Although Hurley was turned over near the Con posts, Garryowen ran the ball back with interest through Earls, who was getting less and less ball as the minutes ticked by.
Both sides were guilty of some poor kicking in open play and Con, with their healthy lead built up, were content to kick long and force Garryowen to run the ball back at them from deep.
There seemed no way out for the light Blues, who had number 8 Peter Malone playing his last game for the club before his move back to Bruff.
They got a bit of a life-line when Con hooker Murray was sin-binned for going in at the side of a ruck and off his feet.
With six minutes of normal time remaining, Garryowen created the game's only try as centre Conan Doyle teed up Bourke's effort to the left of the posts.
However, a tired Hurley knocked his conversion kick off the left upright and Con's lead remained a strong one at 10 points.
In the end, that was their winning margin as they saw out most of the remainder with 14 men, managing to end Limerick's strangehold on the league title - Shannon (2004, 2005 and 2006) and Garryowen (2007) have kept the cup in the county over the last four years.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes - Garryowen penalty: Conor Kilroy - 0-3; 23 mins - Cork Constitution penalty: Jeremy Manning - 3-3; 25 mins - Garryowen penalty: missed by Conor Kilroy - 3-3; 31 mins - Cork Constitution penalty: Jeremy Manning - 6-3; 40+2 mins - Cork Constitution penalty: Jeremy Manning - 9-3; Half-time - Cork Constitution 9 Garryowen 3; 43 mins - Cork Constitution penalty: Jeremy Manning - 12-3; 47 mins - Cork Constitution drop goal: Jeremy Manning - 15-3; 52 mins - Garryowen penalty: missed by Conor Kilroy - 15-3; 60 mins - Cork Constitution penalty: Jeremy Manning - 18-3; 73 mins - Cork Constitution yellow card: Des Murray (ruck infringement); 74 mins - Garryowen try: Lorcan Bourke - 18-8; conversion: missed by Gerry Hurley - 18-8; Full-time - Cork Constitution 18 Garryowen 8
CORK CONSTITUTION: Richie Lane; John Kelly, Tom Gleeson, Evan Ryan, Cronan Healy; Jeremy Manning, John Stringer; Daragh Hurley, Des Murray, Tim Ryan, Merle O'Connell (capt), Shane O'Connor, Frank Cogan, Brendan Cuttriss, Billy Holland.
Replacements used: Daragh Lyons for Kelly, Ed Leamy for Cogan (both 65 mins), Robert Quinn for Cuttriss (76), Colum Murphy for T Ryan, David O'Leary for Stringer (both 79).
GARRYOWEN: Conor Kilroy; Cillian O'Boyle, Kieran Lewis, Conan Doyle, Keith Earls; Willie Staunton, Gerry Hurley; Rory Brosnan, Damien Varley, Eugene McGovern, Mark Melbourne, Frank McKenna, Peter Neville (capt), Anthony Kavanagh, Peter Malone.
Replacements used: David Sherry for McKenna (56 mins), Declan Lavery for Brosnan (64), Lorcan Bourke for Kilroy (65), Barry O'Mahony for Kavanagh, Federico Quaglia for Staunton (both 68).
AIB man of the match: Jeremy Manning (Cork Constitution)
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
Touch Judges: Olan Trevor and Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU)