The cream of Ulster Bank League talent will don the green jersey again tonight, as the Ireland Club team look to finish their campaign ‘on a high’ against a tough England Counties outfit.
The Darlington clash brings the curtain down on a productive few weeks for the Tom Tierney-coached Ireland Club side, who beat their Scottish counterparts 28-3 in Cork earlier this month.
Tierney, who has fellow former Ireland international Mick O’Driscoll assisting him, has enjoyed the opportunity to work with players who he feels are ‘of a professional standard’ and not that far off provincial level.
In an interview with Newstalk, he said: “We’re going very well so far. We had an excellent win in very poor conditions in Cork against Scotland, 28-3, and it just goes to show the quality of player we have – very, very impressive players who are very close to provincial level if not at provincial level.
“It has been a very good campaign so far. It finishes for the lads tonight unfortunately – it’s only a two-game season – but we hope to finish on a high.”
Asked about his approach to the coaching side of things, Tierney explained: “We’ve had five training sessions in the space of six weeks, culminating in two games. It’s just about realising what you have, basically working on areas that will put a bit of shape, a bit of a game-plan in place.
“And then you’re just hoping you’ve picked the best players available, that are at a certain level and quality, that can implement that game-plan without going into the nuts and bolts of technical issues which clearly you don’t have enough time to do.
“As a coach, it’s another step in my personal progression. It’s the first time that I’ve coached an international side and it’s a huge opportunity for myself, personally.”
It is very much the same for his determined and skillful squad who are captained by Gerry Hurley, who won his sixth Munster cap in December, and include former provincial and Ireland Sevens player Daniel Riordan.
Players of the calibre of top Division 1A try scorer Michael McGrath, Terenure lock Fergal Walsh and Lansdowne flankers Willie Earle and Charlie Butterworth are among a number of players eager to make their mark at this level.
Former scrum half Tierney, who coaches Garryowen in Division 1A, is a huge fan of the Ulster Bank League and what it offers both players and coaches.
He believes it is ‘a super league with super players’ and knows that the members of this Irish squad – and those that went before them – take huge pride in representing their country on an international stage.
“(The Club International fixtures) reinforce the quality of the league and offer the opportunity for elite players to get the exposure that they may not have got when they were younger – they can get it now and can move on as a professional player.
“The work that they do in the All-Ireland League is setting a solid foundation because they are learning their trade and the best way to do that is on a weekly basis, and that’s what the All-Ireland League does.”
Although the league itself may not be getting as much media attention as it did in its 1990s heyday, the standard of player keeps getting better and better according to Tierney.
“The quality of players that we’ve picked for the Club International side, you could put them into any British & Irish Cup or any PRO12 team. The quality is there.
“The difference between these guys and those (players) on full-time contracts is arguably sometimes just the luck of the draw down through the years.
“I’ve seen personally the commitment and drive that the lads have shown because they see it (playing for the Club International team) as a huge opportunity and a huge shop window.”
The 37-year-old from Limerick wants another ‘professional’ display from his players tonight, but knows they will face a tough challenge in front of what is expected to be a record rugby crowd at the Northern Echo Arena.
“The way things went against Scotland, to put 28 points on them and play the way we did in very poor conditions, it just goes to show the quality we have. That was a Scottish team that had seven players involved with Glasgow and Edinburgh,” he added.
“We hope to do the same against the England Counties, who are a very strong team with guys who would have played for Leeds Carnegie in the past and are finishing their careers, but there’s up-and-coming guys involved as well.”