The Ulster Bank League season climaxes at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon as Clontarf aim for their second title in three years, but standing in their way are Bateman Cup winners Cork Constitution who are looking to complete a much-prized All-Ireland double.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE DIVISION 1A FINAL: Sunday, May 8
CLONTARF (1st) v CORK CONSTITUTION (2nd), Aviva Stadium, 2.30pm (live RTÉ 2/www.rte.ie/live (worldwide))
* Tickets available from www.ticketmaster.ie and from Ticketmaster outlets nationwide. Tickets will also be available from 12.30pm on Sunday from Ticketmaster vans beside Gate A on Lansdowne Road
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Clontarf: WWWDLWWDWLLWWWWWWWW; Cork Constitution: LDLDWWLLWWLWLWWWWWW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Clontarf: Points: Joey Carbery 134; Tries: Mick McGrath 14; Cork Constitution: Points: Tomas Quinlan 170; Tries: Niall Kenneally 6
Previous Ulster Bank League Titles – Clontarf: 1 (2013/14)
Cork Constitution: 4 (1990/91, 1998/99, 2007/08, 2009/10)
Preview: Clontarf are 80 minutes away from righting the wrongs of last year’s Ulster Bank League Division 1A final when they lost their grip on a 17-8 lead to end up one-point losers to fast-finishing Lansdowne.
Table toppers this term with 13 wins and only three defeats, ‘Tarf bounced into their second successive league decider with an assured 24-10 semi-final win over UCD. The north Dubliners have bottled the hurt of that deflating defeat to Lansdowne and come back even stronger.
While Andy Wood’s men have been a model of consistency in 2015/16, even the most ardent Cork Constitution supporter would have doubted their side’s title credentials early on. The Leesiders had two draws and two losses in the opening four rounds, and it was not until they won 15-14 away to Clontarf in mid-October that they found their feet.
Even when ‘Tarf turned the tables to win 18-12 at Temple Hill in February, Brian Hickey’s Con team bounced back in brilliant fashion by hammering UCD, the then league leaders, 58-15, launching an impressive run of six victories on the trot.
The last of those successes came at home to Young Munster at the semi-final stage, a cagey game which saw Constitution storm home with a late two-try salvo as they capitalised on two yellow cards for the Cookies.
Head coach Hickey, who took over from Tom Tierney last summer, said: “I think Clontarf were far and away the best team in the league. We got a win up there in October and they came down here (to Cork) and beat us. It’s just great that we’re in the final.
“It’s going to be a hell of a tough game for us. They’re a very good side, coached by one of the best coaches in the league, Andy Wood. The games are coming thick and fast, we’ve picked up some injuries and the medics and physios are going to have a big part to play.”
That is very much the case, with Con having overcome Galwegians last Saturday to lift the Bateman Cup for the fourth straight year, and they also have the delayed Munster Senior Cup final against Young Munster to come next weekend.
Competing for a range of silverware at the business end of the year can obviously work in a team’s favour – and Con certainly have a rich history of winning big games – just ask Clontarf who lost the 2015 Bateman Cup final 24-9 to Con on Leeside.
But, the disappointment of that failed double bid is fuelling Clontarf’s class of 2016 and with the fresher legs from a week off and some key men in a rich vein of form, the bookmakers rate Wood’s charges as 1/2 favourites to claim their second league crown in three years.
Bulldozing winger Mick McGrath, who has topped the division’s try-scoring charts again with 14 touchdowns, is one of their potential match winners, while Leinster Academy starlet Joey Carbery – Ireland’s starting out-half at last summer’s World Rugby Under-20 Championship – has been a key figure in his first season with ‘Tarf.
Hailing Carbery who had a hand of three of their tries against UCD, Wood said: “Joey is a super talent. I think he’ll go a long way in the game. I’m looking forward to watching him progress through next season and hopefully the end of this season as well. There were some good individual performances in the semi-final, but we’ll need even more against Con.
“We’ve had a couple of seriously good battles with them already this year. That’s an absolute physical challenge that we can expect in the final. One-off games of rugby. We’ve got to get up again, and bring it again. Con will certainly bring plenty.”
Indeed, Con’s leading scorer (170 points) and Munster Academy ace, Tomas Quinlan, is set for a fascinating individual duel at out-half with Carbery. The pair are aged 21 and 20 respectively and both have big futures ahead of them.
It seems the tighter then game the more influential Quinlan – and his razor-sharp left boot in particular – can be. He will hope that the likes of Max Abbott, Brian Hayes and Graeme Lawler can help the Leesiders get the edge up front. The onus will be on Bryan Byrne, captain Ben Reilly and Tony Ryan to do likewise for ‘Tarf, who could keep the trophy in Dublin for the sixth successive year.
Clubs from the capital have dominated the top flight in recent seasons, whether by topping the table or triumphing via the play-offs, and breaking that dominance would be another feather in Constitution’s cap, with the Temple Hill outfit the last club from outside Dublin to be crowned champions in 2010.
Pre-Match Quotes – Ben Reilly (Clontarf captain): “Two very closely matched teams, it’s always a tough game against Con. It’s probably the two most physical sides in the league, big packs, big back rows. Whoever wins the gain-line, wins that physical battle, will go a long way to towards winning the game.
“We topped the league, we kinda had it wrapped up with a week or so to go, and pretty much from that point on our focus was we haven’t won anything yet, it’s a play-off competition, you don’t win anything for topping the league – you have to go on and win the semi and the final.
“We’ve been competing (for the title) for the last few years, obviously we won it a couple of years ago and lost out by a point last year. So we definitely have the experience, and we can use that experience and desire this weekend and gain a small advantage from it.
“It’s massive (to lead the team out at the Aviva Stadium). I was lucky enough to captain the club to win our first AIL a few years ago. At that time it was a straight league format, so it was kinda funny – we won it on the last day of the season and there was a few minutes waiting for another result. Whereas this year, I know that if we come out here (at the Aviva), perform to the best of our ability, we’re going to lift the trophy at the end of the day. It means everything.”
James Ryan (Cork Constitution captain): “Absolutely delighted to be here (preparing for the league final). We had a poor start to the season, and after Christmas we really kicked on. We got our six try-scoring bonus points after Christmas which were key to getting into second place.
“We had a great win last weekend (against Galwegians in the Bateman Cup final), and two wins before that. Momentum is key at this point of the season. The Bateman Cup is a special trophy for the club and we were delighted to get our hands on it again.
“The league is the big one, that was the goal at the start of the season. We’ve got to this stage, which is fantastic, but we want to kick for home and win it on Sunday. We were lucky enough to win up here (in Dublin against Clontarf) at the start of the season, and they beat us down in Cork. So it’s going to come down to a kick of a ball definitely by the end on Sunday.
“Clontarf are very good defensively, they’ve the best defence in the league. Down in Cork we struggled to break them down. We’ve looked at that during the week and hopefully we can get on top of them. (Leading the team out at the Aviva) is the highlight of my career so far, for an amateur player it’s as good as it gets.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, October 17, 2015: Clontarf 14 Cork Constitution 15, Castle Avenue; Saturday, February 20, 2016: Cork Constitution 12 Clontarf 18, Temple Hill
CLONTARF (provisional): Evan Ryan; Michael Brown, Conor O’Brien, Matt D’Arcy, Mick McGrath; Joey Carbery, Sam Cronin; Ivan Soroka, Bryan Byrne, Ian Hirst, Tom Byrne, Ben Reilly (capt), Michael Noone, Karl Moran, Tony Ryan.
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Neil Reilly, Vakhtang Abdaladze, Peter du Toit, David Joyce, Rob McGrath, Eoghan Browne.
CORK CONSTITUTION (provisional): Darren Sweetnam; Aaron Spring, Ned Hodson, Niall Kenneally, Rob Jermyn; Tomas Quinlan, Ryan Foley; Gavin Duffy, Max Abbott, Ger Sweeney, Conor Kindregan, Brian Hayes, Graeme Lawler, James Murphy, James Ryan (capt).
Replacements: Rory Burke, Liam O’Connor, Cathal O’Flaherty, Sonny Dwyer, John Poland, Shane Daly, Darragh Lyons, Liam O’Connell.
Referee: Andy Brace (IRFU)
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Clontarf to win
Ulster Bank League Division 1A – Recent Finals/Winners:
2015 – Lansdowne – (final: 18-17 v Clontarf, Aviva Stadium)
2014 – Clontarf (first in league)
2013 – Lansdowne (first in league)
2012 – St. Mary’s College (first in league)
2011 – Old Belvedere (final: 20-17 v Cork Constitution, Donnybrook)
2010 – Cork Constitution (final: 17-10 v St. Mary’s College, Dubarry Park)
2009 – Shannon (final: 19-19 v Clontarf, Thomond Park (aet) (Shannon won via first try scored))
2008 – Cork Constitution (final: 18-8 v Garryowen, Musgrave Park)
2007 – Garryowen (final: 16-15 v Cork Constitution, Musgrave Park)
2006 – Shannon (final: 30-3 v Clontarf, Lansdowne Road)
2005 – Shannon (final: 25-20 v Belfast Harlequins, Lansdowne Road)
Ulster Bank League Division 1A – Champions’ List:
Shannon 9 (1994/95, 1995/96, 1996/97, 1997/98, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09)
Cork Constitution 4 (1990/91, 1998/99, 2007/08, 2009/10)
Garryowen 3 (1991/92, 1993/94, 2006/07)
St. Mary’s College 2 (1999/00, 2011/12)
Lansdowne 2 (2012/13, 2014/15)
Young Munster 1 (1992/93)
Dungannon 1 (2000/01)
Ballymena 1 (2002/03)
Old Belvedere 1 (2010/11)
Clontarf 1 (2013/14)