Clontarf’s new captain Michael Noone has insisted that tonight’s All-Ireland League Division 1A opener against Lansdowne will not be a season-defining game for the north Dubliners.
Andy Wood’s Clontarf side welcome the defending champions to Castle Avenue for a 8pm kick-off under the floodlights, hoping to avoid a repeat result of last season’s corresponding fixture.
A 9-0 reversal last November brought an end to their unbeaten home run, which gives ‘Tarf all the motivation they need on their return to league action. Michael Noone is well aware of the attention this Dublin derby will generate, but was eager to stress that it is only the beginning of their 2018/19 journey.
“Huge game. Everyone is going hype it up, it’s going to be massive. But it’s still going to be one of the 18 games all season. It’s a brilliant fixture, it’s a brilliant opener. The Bull Ring Friday night, under the lights,” Noone told IrishRugby.ie.
“What other way do you want to sell it? It’s an amazing fixture, but at the end of the day it’s one game. We’ll look towards this. It’s not a cup final, it’s the first game of the season. We’ll see how we are.”
All-Ireland League winners in both 2014 and 2016, Clontarf were also runners-up in 2012, 2015 and 2017. Last term proved to be a disappointment for Noone and his team-mates, however, as a fifth place finish left them outside of the play-off reckoning.
This was their lowest league placing since they gained promotion in 2010/11 and experienced number 8 Noone admits they fell below the high standards they set for themselves. “I’d say disappointment was an understatement,” he acknowledged.
“Where we foresee ourselves in ‘Tarf is to compete for that May 7 game, the final. Hugely upsetting to not make it. I think you’ll put it down to maybe a transitional year of players coming on and going on, but ‘Tarf don’t have transition years. It’s not how we structure ourselves.
“The team was definitely good enough. We came to the last game of the season. Went up against Cork Con and put 40, 50 points on them. The team was there, the mentality probably not where we wanted to be. Where we want to be on May 7 is to the right of us here (the Aviva Stadium pitch), playing for cups. It’s what we do in ‘Tarf.”
They have undertaken a significant recruitment drive in their bid to challenge for top honours in Division 1A, with Angus Lloyd, who has represented both Ulster and Munster in the professional game, Michael Courtney, Paddy Finlay, Martin Kelly and Jack McDermott all joining from Dublin University.
Noone sees their arrival as a positive step forward for Wood’s charges, who face Terenure College in their first away game on Saturday week.
The 28-year-old added: “I think a lot of the Trinity guys, their natural progression is to come out of that university atmosphere. University rugby is apparently amazing, I’ve never played it. It’s a brilliant culture and Tony Smeeth (the Dublin University director of rugby) does wonderful things with Trinity.
“It goes to show these guys’ ambition to come across to a club like ourselves and to say, ‘listen, I want to go and win things’. It was kinda a domino effect. One went, they all went. Michael Courtney is a fantastic player. He’s a CBC Monkstown guy (Noone’s alma mater). Superb captain of Trinity. Irish Clubs, Irish Universities.
“Angus Lloyd, speaks for himself. Huge heritage there. Martin Kelly, as well, is a tighthead prop. Amazing addition to our side and especially Paddy Finlay. You could go on all day, but really, really good guys. So excited to have them on board with us.”
Noone’s working relationship with his current head coach Wood stretches back to 2010, when he played under the New Zealander at Blackrock College RFC. This came before a move across the water for the Greystones man where he featured for Doncaster Knights, Rotherham Titans, Leicester Tigers and, more recently, Jersey Reds.
His desire to build something tangible outside of professional rugby prompted his return home, and he subsequently obtained a Masters in Business and Finance at the National College of Ireland.
The majority of Noone’s appearances in the UK came in the English Championship, although he lined out 10 times for Leicester during a two-year stint with the Premiership club. Despite the presence of some notable sleeping giants, Noone believes a number of All-Ireland League outfits would be capable of challenging in England’s second tier.
“I know they’re both rugby comps, but they’re very hard to match up sometimes. The AIL is an incredibly high standard. The Championship is a very forwards-orientated league. There’s probably three or four in the Championship that are top, top clubs.
“Then you’ve got your middle of the road clubs and then you’ve got teams in the lower Championship, that are probably yo-yoing every two years. In terms of how do they match in terms of standards? Definitely the top four or five in AIL could compete in the Championship, without a doubt.
“But the Championship do have the likes of Yorkshire Carnegie and London Irish, and Worcester and Newcastle, going back up and down. They come down like Bristol did. There’s no salary cap and they go straight back up the year after. There’s obviously a couple there at the top that are very good, but there’s a couple down the bottom that are hanging on probably.”
Indeed, the current high level of competition in the All-Ireland League has helped the powerful back rower to retain his love for the game.
“The standard is very, very high. Especially 1A. It’s the reason why I’m still playing. To be frank about it, if it wasn’t a great standard it wouldn’t motivate you to play rugby. It wasn’t easy to come back and play. The games are really, really tough,” he noted.
“The structure, especially around Clontarf, is fantastic. It’s as close to professional as you’re going to get with all the support networks. You slotted straight back in, so it’s a very good comp. It’s very enjoyable still, actually.”