Clontarf, appearing for the fifth successive year in the play-offs, are chasing the carrot of a first AIB League Division One title on Saturday as they go head-to-head with eight-time winners Shannon at Thomond Park Stadium (kick-off 4pm).
2008/09 AIB LEAGUE DIVISION ONE FINAL: Saturday, May 9
CLONTARF v SHANNON, Thomond Park Stadium, 4pm (live RTE Two)
Preview/Team News: Blue was the colour at Croke Park last weekend but will Shannon be able to get a slice of revenge on Munster’s behalf as Clontarf make the trip south for a much-anticipated play-off final.
History and effectively home advantage will be on the Limerick club’s side as they bid for a record ninth Division One success, while ‘Tarf, in coach Andy Wood’s last season at the helm, are hoping to end their long wait for the All-Ireland crown.
Judging by their 25-6 semi-final defeat of Cork Constitution at Temple Hill, the north Dublin outfit are more than capable of making up for the heartbreak of ‘that’ 30-3 loss to Shannon at this stage three years ago.
Their hard-fought 8-6 win over Shannon at Thomond Park will also act as a confidence booster but as ‘Tarf captain Daragh O’Shea pointed out this week, past games between the sides will be irrelevant come kick-off time.
Shannon boast a stunning final record. In 29 Limerick, Munster and All-Ireland finals since 1989, they have only lost one game (against UL Bohemians in the 2007 Limerick Charity Cup decider).
But Geoff Moylan’s class of 2009 are very much a new model, with only seven survivors from the 2006 final win over ‘Tarf at Lansdowne Road.
Losing skipper and scrum half Fiach O’Loughlin to a facial injury in March was a considerable blow, but the Parish club have rallied and come alive, as they usually seem to do, for the final weeks of the league campaign.
O’Loughlin has recovered enough to take his place on the replacements bench for this weekend’s final, with rookie Luke O’Dea the unfortunate player to miss out.
That is the only change to the squad that secured Shannon’s qualification for the final with a dogged 16-12 semi-final victory over Garryowen at Coonagh.
This will be Shannon’s sixth league play-off final – they have won the previous five – and with potential match winners in Frankie McNamara, who has come out of retirement to don the number 9 jersey again, Munster and Ireland flanker Donnacha Ryan and lightning-quick Limerick Gaelic footballer Stephen Kelly, Moylan’s men look well-primed.
Particularly, with the division’s top points scorer, out-half Tadhg Bennett, also at their disposal.
But can Clontarf do a ‘Leinster’ on it? If they at least match the performance they put in against Cork Con, you would have to think so.
In South African flanker Heinrich Stride, they have an experienced operator with a try-scoring touch. Leinster-capped scrum half Paul O’Donohoe has very good game management and a real attacking eye, centre O’Shea rarely lets his side down from place-kicks and the dancing feet of Ireland Under-20 winger Michael Keating will have to be watched closely.
A fascinating lineout battle lies ahead too, with ‘Tarf lock Ben Reilly looking to enhance his growing reputation in the loose and on set piece ball.
Clontarf are unchanged from the semi-final and boosted by the additions of the fit-again Adrian Clarke and Peter O’Brien to the replacements bench.
‘Tarf have the personnel to finish the job and on recent form – Wood’s charges have won their last five games and conceded only six points in their last three – they are more than capable of releasing Munster’s grip on the league trophy.
Munster clubs have shared the title over the past five years since Ulster side Ballymena triumphed at Lansdowne Road in 2003. St. Mary’s College (2000) have been the only Leinster winners.
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Clontarf to win by less than 7 points
CLONTARF: Phil Howard; Niall O’Brien, Daragh O’Shea (capt), Breffni O’Donnell, Michael Keating; Martin Dufficy, Paul O’Donohoe; Kenny Dorian, Aaron Dundon, Niall Treston, Ben Reilly, Simon Crawford, Heinrich Stride, Niall Carson, Martin Garvey.
Replacements: Adrian Clarke, Sean Treacy, John Duffy, Ben Focas, Max Rantz-McDonald, Johnny Wickham, Peter O’Brien.
SHANNON: David O’Donovan; Richie Mullane, Fionn McLoughlin, John Clogan, Stephen Kelly; Tadhg Bennett, Frankie McNamara; Killian O’Neill, Mike Essex, Kevin Griffin, Padraic O’Brien, Fergal Walsh, Donnacha Ryan, Eoghan Grace, David Quinlan (capt).
Replacements: Jason Cronin, Marcus O’Driscoll, Paul Loughnane, John O’Connor, Les Hogan, Emmet McLoughlin, Fiach O’Loughlin.
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Clontarf to win: 13/10; Draw: 16/1; Shannon to win: 8/13
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