A strong second half of the season has Clontarf on the cusp of their third Ulster Bank League title in four years. Standing in their way are familiar foes Cork Constitution who return to the capital just a week on from winning a record fifth Bateman Cup in-a-row.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE DIVISION 1A FINAL: Sunday, May 7
CLONTARF v CORK CONSTITUTION, Aviva Stadium, 2.30pm (live RTE Two/www.rte.ie/live (worldwide))
* Tickets available from www.ticketmaster.ie and from Ticketmaster outlets nationwide (adults €;10/under-18 tickets are free but must be booked with an adult ticket). Tickets will also be available from 12.30pm on match day from Ticketmaster vans on Lansdowne Road
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Clontarf: WLLWLLLWWWLWWWWLWWW; Cork Constitution: WLLWWWWWWLWLWWWWLWW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Clontarf: Points: Rob Keogh 99; Tries: Matt D’Arcy 8; Cork Constitution: Points: Tomas Quinlan 180; Tries: Conor Kindregan 6
Previous Ulster Bank League Titles – Clontarf: 2 (2013/14, 2015/16); Cork Constitution: 4 (1990/91, 1998/99, 2007/08, 2009/10)
Preview: Cork Constitution are all out for revenge after losing last year’s decider 28-25, a thrilling seven-try encounter in which Joey Carbery starred for ‘Tarf with a man-of-the-match performance and Darren Sweetnam featured prominently at full-back for the Leesiders.
A win this weekend for Brian Hickey’s men would be hugely significant not just for the club but also the Munster domestic scene, as Dublin clubs – Old Belvedere, St. Mary’s, Lansdowne and Clontarf – have dominated the league’s roll of honour since the Temple Hill outfit last lifted the trophy in 2010.
To put themselves in a position to claim back-to-back titles, Andy Wood’s Clontarf side won six of their last seven regular season games and triumphed 37-29 in a home semi-final against Young Munster. Brothers Mick and Rob McGrath scored three of their six tries that day, while Michael Noone, Michael Brown and Bristol-bound hooker Jason Harris-Wright have also helped ‘Tarf recapture their best form.
Big second row Conor Kindregan, Con’s top try scorer with six league tries, and Bateman Cup final man-of-the-match Brian Hayes has been two key men for the All-Ireland double hunters along with the division’s leading points scorer, out-half Tomas Quinlan (180 points). A gruelling schedule across three competitions has seen Hickey’s charges only having two weekends without a match since January 7.
Kindregan (ankle) and flanker Graeme Lawler (hamstring) are expected to start after recovering in time from their respective knocks, while experienced scrum half Sam Cronin is poised to return to the Clontarf team after missing their semi-final victory. It will be interesting to see what impact last weekend will have, with the north Dubliners resting up while Con were busy retaining their Bateman Cup crown.
With a regular season win apiece – the hosts won on both occasions – and memories of last May’s titanic battle, it is no wonder that the bookmakers’ pre-match odds are particularly tight. The handicap betting has Cork Con +2 points, with title holders ‘Tarf 4/6 to win the final outright and Con priced at 11/10.
Pre-Match Quotes: Ben Reilly (Clontarf): “It’s great to be competing at the end of the season for another title. Obviously it’s our third league final in a row, we’ve won one from two so far, so we’re hoping to add that third one this weekend.
“It’s been an interesting season, probably the most competitive on record, I think, if you look at the top three teams all finishing on 53 points – only points difference splitting them – and then only one point down to the fourth-placed side.
“We struggled a little bit in the first half (of the season) but we found some good form in the second half and managed to get ourselves a home semi-final which obviously helped to get us through to Sunday.
“Ourselves and Con, we’re making a habit of playing each other in these tight games. We lost down there to them this year, we beat them at home. I think you’ve the two best teams in the country and hopefully we can put on a similar performance to what we got last year.”
Gavin Duffy (Cork Constitution): “We are the same team (from last year) and Clontarf are very much the same team. It’s an AIL final against the same team so we’ve studied the video and learned a lot from it and from the experience of playing in it.
“We are definitely hungrier. For a lot of us last year that was our first AIL (final). Losing it affected us all season. It was our mission to get back here. We’re very similar to last year but we know what it takes to compete against the top level, quality sides like Clontarf.
“Clontarf are an all-round team. They have an extremely strong pack and they have a very dangerous back-line. You can’t have any weakness against them, really. You have to stand up to them up front and you have to be able to handle their dangerous back-line.
“It’s hard to predict (which players will progress through to the professional game). You’ve got the likes of Evan Mintern, Rory Burke, Liam O’Connor, Ned Hodson…you’ll see at the weekend that they are all fantastic players and I would have no fear of them going at it for a professional team like Munster or whoever.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, November 12, 2016: Cork Constitution 24 Clontarf 17, Temple Hill; Saturday, February 11, 2017: Clontarf 22 Cork Constitution 13, Castle Avenue
CLONTARF: Rob Keogh; Michael Brown, Conor O’Brien, Matt D’Arcy, Mick McGrath; David Joyce, Sam Cronin; Vakh Adbaladze, Jason Harris-Wright, Royce Burke-Flynn, Ben Reilly (capt), Mick Kearney, Tony Ryan, Karl Moran, Michael Noone.
Replacements: Bryan Byrne, Adrian D’Arcy, Ivan Soroka, Mark Sutton, Rob McGrath, Jack Power, Eoghan Browne.
CORK CONSTITUTION: Shane Daly; Liam O’Connell, Ned Hodson, Niall Kenneally (capt), Rob Jermyn; Tomas Quinlan, Jason Higgins; Liam O’Connor, Vincent O’Brien, Ger Sweeney, Brian Hayes, Conor Kindregan, Graeme Lawler, James Murphy, Luke Cahill.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Rory Burke, Gavin Duffy, Sean O’Leary, Ross O’Neill, John Poland, JJ O’Neill.
Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Cork Constitution to win
Ulster Bank League Division 1A – Recent Finals/Winners:
2016 – Clontarf (final: 28-25 v Cork Constitution, Aviva Stadium)
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)
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)
Clontarf 2 (2013/14, 2015/16)
Lansdowne 2 (2012/13, 2014/15)
St. Mary’s College 2 (1999/00, 2011/12)
Ballymena 1 (2002/03)
Dungannon 1 (2000/01)
Old Belvedere 1 (2010/11)
Young Munster 1 (1992/93)