Shannon had to dig deeper than ever before to claim their ninth AIB League Division One title after an epic 100-minute battle with Clontarf at Thomond Park on Saturday, watched by 4,879 spectators.
2008/09 AIB LEAGUE DIVISION ONE FINAL: Saturday, May 9
CLONTARF 19 SHANNON 19, Thomond Park (after extra-time; Shannon win on ‘first try scored’ ruling)
Scorers: Clontarf: Tries: Heinrich Stride, Simon Crawford; Pens: Daragh O’Shea 3
Shannon: Tries: David O’Donovan 2; Pens: Tadhg Bennett 2; Drop: Tadhg Bennett
The sides were locked level at 19-19 after 80 minutes and that was still the case after two halves of extra-time, in what was a tremendous advert for Irish club rugby
The try count-back could not split the finalists – they shared out four tries – but Shannon were crowned champions by virtue of the fact that they scored the game’s first try.
Full-back David O’Donovan grabbed that all-important score, 23 minutes into the decider, when he linked with Tadhg Bennett before powering over in the right corner.
Losing in such a way was cruel luck on Clontarf who were bidding for their first win in three Division One finals.
With six minutes remaining in extra-time, the north Dubliners were inches away from grabbing the match-winning try but replacement Max Rantz-McDonald agonisingly lost the ball forward as he stretched for the line.
Using all the experience gained from five successive play-off final victories, Shannon survived in a tense finale and David Quinlan and Frankie McNamara, the two playing links back to their maiden win in 1998, drove them on to a glorious end to their season.
The match, a real end-to-end tussle, brought the curtain down on the most exciting AIB League season in recent years.
No one deserved to lose and the sporting manner in which the game was played in was suitably matched by Alain Rolland’s high standard of refereeing.
Shannon notched the opening score after only 53 seconds’ play. Clontarf failed to gather Bennett’s kick-off and the Limerick side, roared on by the locals, marched into the ”Tarf 22.
Prop Kevin Griffin barged forward and two phases later, the Shannon number 10 dinked a drop goal through the posts to take his tally for the campaign to 170 points.
Clontarf, for whom scrum half Paul O’Donohoe had an excellent game, got stuck in off the restart and team captain Daragh O’Shea was only narrowly wide from a long range penalty attempt.
There were nerves on both sides but the pace gradually quicked and the crowd were drawn into what turned out to be a cracking game.
The large ‘Tarf support roared their approval when Niall O’Brien produced a huge hit on O’Donovan as he gathered a garryowen, and the Shannon faithful increased the decibel level when Eoghan Grace, Fionn McLoughlin and Quinlan punched their way forward.
Two of club rugby’s best young out-halves were also in opposition, as Bennett went toe to toe with former Ireland Under-20 international Martin Dufficy.
There were great individual battles all over the pitch, not least at scrum half where 33-year-old veteran McNamara, who came out of retirement recently after Shannon captain Fiach O’Loughlin sustained a broken jaw, tried to outdo the Leinster-capped O’Donohoe.
O’Shea redeemed himself with a very good penalty strike on 15 minutes, punishing Grace for an offside and moving ‘Tarf level at 3-3.
But pressure from the Shannon forwards drew a ruck infringement in front of the ‘Tarf posts which Bennett easily converted.
The place-kickers were going tit for tat and O’Shea managed to square it up again on 22 minutes, splitting the posts after Fergal Walsh had been penalised at a ruck.
But what turned out to be effectively the match-winning score arrived just moments later. Clontarf were having trouble off restarts and they coughed up possession again, allowing the 2006 champions tee up a pre-planned move.
As they probed to the right of the posts, a lovely dummy switch and inside pass from Bennett unlocked the defence and O’Donovan’s straight run onto the pass ended with him dotting down in the corner.
Bennett missed the conversion and Clontarf succeeded in responding almost immediately, just a minute later in fact.
O’Shea drifted by two would-be tacklers on a weaving run and he found Dufficy out wide on the right. The out-half has the presence of mind to draw the cover and loop a pass back inside for the waiting Heinrich Stride to run onto and score from close range.
O’Shea’s missed conversion left the sides tied at 11-11 and it was Shannon who managed to have the final say of the first half, mustering a second try for O’Donovan after 32 minutes.
Michael Keating was pinged for not releasing on the deck and Geoff Moylan’s men ran the ball back through a quick tap penalty, taken by Fionn McLoughlin.
Richie Mullane made decent yardage up into the 22 and O’Donovan pimed himself for a short burst to the try-line, using his bulk to squeeze over from five metres out.
Clontarf called for a double movement but the eagle-eyed Rolland deemed it a legitimate try and he was perfectly placed to spot the grounding.
Again Bennett failed to convert the extras from wide out, leaving Shannon with a 16-11 buffer to take into the second half.
Clontarf had dominated the second half of their semi-final against Cork Constitution and they were similarly effective on the resumption here.
Andy Wood and the management team had obviously ironed out a few issues at half-time and ‘Tarf, with Stride, O’Donohoe, Dufficy, Aaron Dundon and Ben Reilly all prominent, began to work through the phases and gain good ground.
They won a scrum against the head and with prop Niall Treston causing further damage at a subsequent set piece, the Castle Avenue residents soon turned the pressure into points.
Padraic O’Brien was whistled up for illegally blocking a pass from O’Donohoe away from a ruck and the Shannon lock was sent to the sin-bin. O’Shea mopped up by kicking his third successful penalty.
Three minutes later, ‘Tarf were celebrating their second try. The Shannon defence was sucked into the centre as they tried manfully to defend their line.
Wood’s charges set up a lineout attack, pressed through the middle with their big ball carries and when Stride was double-teamed to the left of the posts, O’Donohoe turned quick ball into a try with a neat pass out to the left for the lurking Simon Crawford to score.
O’Shea missed the conversion but at 19-16 up and confidence high, Clontarf were beginning to look the part.
But, as so often happens in these tight finals, the opposition raised their game. Their rampaging flanker Grace, an Ireland Sevens international, made a lung-bursting break.
He swatted Breffni O’Donnell away and galloped towards the ‘Tarf 22.
Niall O’Brien came in at the side of the resulting ruck, slowing up Shannon’s attacking ball, and Rolland quickly reached for his yellow card.
It was a double blow for ‘Tarf as Bennett planted the penalty kick through the posts to bring his side level at 19-19 and indeed, that was to be the final score in this ding dong battle.
‘Tarf looked to be on the ropes when Padraic O’Brien rejoined the fray, but O’Donohoe led superbly behind a workhorse pack and dovetailed brilliantly with the impressive Dufficy.
McNamara was also rolling back the years. A four-time league winner before today, he has been managing the Shannon seconds squad this season but he answered the call when O’Loughlin was sidelined and proved his class with a robust display.
His half-back partner Bennett missed a penalty from the left, after 69 minutes, which could have put Shannon back in front.
The Limerick men had the better of the closing quarter-hour, with the ‘Tarf pack beginning to tire, but the Dubliners also sparked some late attacks.
Aggressive defence was needed by Shannon and Munster duo Donnacha Ryan and Mike Essex to the fore, they gained an important turnover close to their posts.
Back on the attack, Bennett sent a terrific touch-finding kick down the left, putting pressure on Dundon’s lineout throw but even though ‘Tarf retained possession, they fluffed a 22-metre drop out and gave Shannon a sniff of a try.
Full-back Phil Howard had to clear under severe pressure close to the whitewash and a late and very optimistic drop goal shot from O’Donovan flew harmlessly under the bar.
With nothing to split the sides, extra-time was called for and the players’ fitness levels were being tested to the hilt as play spread quickly between the 22s.
Clontarf enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the first period of extra-time, looking dangerous in broken play as O’Donohoe, Keating and the straight-running Stride looked for an opening.
Shannon’s disciplined defence would not give way though, and a break from former captain David Quinlan, a cousin of Munster and Ireland’s Alan Quinlan, got the Parish club back on the front foot.
Bennett made a determined run up the right, evading a couple of defenders and then moments later he flashed a drop goal attempt narrowly to the left of the posts.
Both coaches brought on further replacements for extra-time’s second period, as word got around that Shannon would win courtesy of that first O’Donovan try if the score remained the same.
Ben Focas added some bite to ‘Tarf’s forward rushes at close quarters, but when potential overlaps did appear out wide not even man-of-the-match O’Donohoe could expoit them.
‘Tarf’s best chance came on 94 minutes. Keating and O’Donohoe had the north Dubliners within sight of the try-line and after jinking past two Shannon players on the left, Rantz-McDonald, a try scorer in the semi-final, looked almost certain to go over.
But as he dived towards the whitewash, a last-ditch tackle forced him to lose control of the ball and he dropped it as he landed on the line, allowing several Shannon heartbeats to return to their regular rhythm.
With time trickling away, ‘Tarf had to force the issue and O’Shea erred when his meaty clearance downfield was cleverly dealt with by O’Donovan as he touched the ball down behind the posts with his right leg over the dead-ball line – meaning a scrum back in ‘Tarf’s half.
There was little Clontarf could do as Shannon, with Grace covering almost every blade of grass, wore down the clock with a series of pick and goes.
Bennett tried a drop goal again but was blocked down and ‘Tarf, despite a spirited late push, could not get back within scoring range.
It was heartbreaking way for Clontarf to lose the final. Three years ago, they were beaten 30-3 by Shannon the last league final at the old Lansdowne Road.
This time around, they would have been worthy winners but Shannon, to their credit, dogged it out when they had to and perhaps scored some revenge for a certain Munster v Leinster clash which took place last week.
But one thing is for sure, all the players, coaches, club officials, match officials, event organisers and supporters played their part in a match which will live long in the annals of the AIB League.
The win marked Shannon’s ninth AIB League Division One title success. Five previous titles came their way via play-off finals (1998, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006), while they took the crown by topping the table in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
The result also kept up the club’s incredible record of only having lost one major final since 1989 (one defeat in 30 finals).
Their last loss in a final was in the 2007 Limerick Charity Cup against UL Bohemians.
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 used: Johnny Wickham for Dorian (61 mins), Max Rantz-McDonald for O’Brien (72), Conor Keegan for O’Donnell (80), Ben Focas for Carson (90).
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 used: Les Hogan for O’Neill (60 mins), Emmet McLoughlin for O’Brien, Marcus O’Driscoll for Kelly (both 90).
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)