When the likes of Ronan O’Gara, Frankie Sheahan and Donncha O’Callaghan ascended the West Stand steps at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, May 1, 1999, to lift Cork Constitution’s second AIB League Division One title, little did they know that nine years later the club would still be chasing its third.
2007/08 AIB LEAGUE DIVISION ONE FINAL: Sunday, May 11
CORK CONSTITUTION v GARRYOWEN, Musgrave Park, 1.15pm (live RTE One/live rte.ie (Ireland only))
– Click here to listen to an interview with Cork Constitution captain Merle O’Connell
– Click here to listen to an interview with Garryowen captain Paul Neville
The play-off system has not been kind to Cork Con. Five times since 2000 they have finished out the league’s regulation phase by topping the table – only for their title hopes to be dashed, most notably by Shannon in 2002 and 2004 and Garryowen last year.
Garryowen are their opponents again in today’s decider. They are the form teams, Cork Con with eight straight wins and Garryowen registering a club record eleven wins on the trot.
Coached by Brian Walsh, who was full-back in Con’s 1999-winning side, the men from Temple Hill have been brilliantly consistent again this season.
Con’s 13 wins in 15 league games speaks for itself and Heineken Cup winners John Kelly, Anthony Horgan, Jeremy Manning and Denis Fogarty give the squad experienced spine, although the latter two are injury doubts.
Former Ireland Under-21 full-back Richie Lane (11 tries) and AIB Club international winger Cronan Healy (7 tries) are consistent threats in the back-line and they boast a formidable back row unit in Frank Cogan, Brendan Cuttriss and Billy Holland, the son of Munster team manager Jerry Holland.
Defending champions Garryowen secured a memorable 31-6 semi-final win over arch rivals Shannon last weekend.
Having lost their grip on the AIB Cup and Munster Senior Cup, the Dooradoyle residents are particularly determined to win back-to-back league titles in Dara O’Sullivan’s first season as head coach.
Led superbly well by flanker Paul Neville, whose participation in the final is in doubt because of a shoulder injury, Garryowen boast a settled side with Munster’s Kieran Lewis and Keith Earls (7 tries) adding some polish to their backs.
Watch out for the 20-year-old Willie Staunton, brother of Ireland international Jeremy Staunton, who has struck up an excellent half-back partnership with Gerry Hurley.
In the pack, number 8 Peter Malone is set to play his last game for Garryowen before his return to Bruff next season, while hooker Damien Varley and lock Mark Melbourne are vital cogs in the Limerick side’s machine.
Commenting on Garryowen’s winning streak, technical director Greig Oliver said: “It’s all down to the panel of players. They have pushed their limits and at times have shown great character, resolve and more importantly a mental edge.”
Con and Garryowen have met three times in the league in the past two seasons with no more than a point between them on each occasion.
Con director of rugby Paul Derham said: “I believe like all the great finals between Cork Con and Garryowen, it will come down to a single score.
“Garryowen had the perfect season last year winning the AIB Cup, AIB League, Munster Senior Cup and Munster Junior Cup.
“We’ve won the Munster Junior Cup already this year and hopefully this will be our year to win the league. But I have no doubt Garryowen have other plans, they always do!”
Twelve months ago, Garryowen picked up their first league title since 1994 with a 16-15 win over Con at Musgrave Park.
A converted try from Varley edged them home although Con did miss two late drop goal attempts. Expect another cliffhanger on Sunday afternoon.
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Cork Constitution to win by less than 7 points