Finals are usually played at neutral venues but for MU Barnhall captain Ciara Faulkner, this is essentially a home game. She has the opportunity to lift the Energia All-Ireland Women’s Junior Cup on her home patch of Mullingar RFC in front of all her family and friends.
The MU Barnhall players are focused on making sure they remain the only team to be engraved on the Junior Cup trophy. They were crowned the inaugural winners of the national competition last April, beating Leinster rivals Tullamore 38-12 in the decider which was also played in Mullingar.
Standing in their way of retaining the title this Saturday (kick-off 2pm) are first-time finalists, an in-form Tuam/Oughterard Colts side who are quietly confident they can claim the spoils the continue their rapid rise.
Faulkner is relishing another cup final occasion, especially having scored a try and kicked four conversions during last season’s impressive final victory. Playing in her hometown gives her that extra incentive to come out on top again.
“I’d love to be able to win back-to-back titles in my hometown of Mullingar, it would be so special,” admitted the talented 22-year-old back, speaking to IrishRugby.ie ahead of the much-anticipated clash at Shay Murtagh Park.
“The amount of people who have already text me to say they’ll be there to support me. I’ve got cousins, grandparents who don’t usually get to come and watch me, aunts and uncles, even the kids I teach in the school – they all want to watch ‘Miss Faulkner’ play on Saturday!
“I was saying it to mum and dad during the week, it’s so special to be leading out the team in an All-Ireland final on the pitch where I started rugby. To potentially retain the title, it’s feels surreal. I’m so excited for the game.
“We just have to go out there and produce the best performance on the day and hopefully we get the job done. It will be all go on Saturday.”
The ambitious Kildare club ply their trade in Division 1 of the Leinster Junior League. They qualified for their second successive All-Ireland Junior Cup final by overcoming Malone (24-15) and familiar foes Tullamore (17-8).
They lost 20-15 to Tullamore at home in the early stages of the league campaign. It was their first loss on home soil n quite some time, and was described as a ‘devasting’ defeat. Faulkner explained how this made that semi-final triumph even more satisfying.
“We were gutted to lose that league game (to Tullamore). We knew we had to pull up our socks after that defeat.
“We have a relatively new team this season. The girls have really stepped up at training to push themselves and everybody else on. It’s made the team better.
“Tullamore are a great team, very strong, well managed, so we knew we had to put on a strong performance. We knew we needed to have a big first 10 minutes.
“Hit hard, look after our ruck. Retain the ball, and just play simple rugby. We did that, and thankfully we managed to come out on top,” she explained.
University teams have the unique challenge of quite a lot of player turnover from season to season, with players continuously coming and going. This can present different obstacles.
Indeed, the Barnhall team selected for Saturday’s showdown with Tuam/Oughterard shows 10 personnel changes from the 2023 final version. Faulkner captains from outside centre, with Lauren Patterson, Katelynn Doran, Emma Kiernan, and Sarah Haughian the other retained starters.
Among the absentees are Leinster lock Ruth Campbell, who has been one of the standout players in the current Celtic Challenge competition with the Clovers. She scored two tries during last season’s Junior Cup final.
Alongside Faulkner, Niamh Quinn, last season’s captain, has really come to the fore. Holly Leach, who will unfortunately miss the game through injury, has also impressed, while the returning Doran, the first Women’s player to be awarded a Rugby Scholarship at Maynooth University, has been a huge asset.
Packing down at number 8 this weekend, Doran (pictured above) was also a senior Interprovincial Championship winner with Leinster earlier this season. The addition of Órfhlaith Murray from Suttonians has also bolstered Barnhall’s attacking threat in the back-line.
To be involved in two All-Ireland finals is not an achievement that is lost on the players, with Faulkner declaring: “I’ve been talking about in work all week. We probably didn’t soak the occasion in as much as we should have last season.
It’s a huge thing for the rugby club to win an All-Ireland final. It’s surreal that we have the chance to do it again. The club have been so supportive, provided us with everything we’ve needed.
“It would take me all day to name all the people who helped. It was unbelievable last season.
“It just shows the growth and the work that the club are putting in to promote Women’s rugby in Barnhall and the surrounding areas by us making another final.”
The skilful Faulkner, who has been in and around the Leinster senior squad the last few seasons, acknowledged that this has very much been a concerted effort between players, management, and other club officials who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make these moments possible.
IRFU National Training and Education Manager Colin Moran has been a constant in Barnhall’s progression, coaching them to that historic first Junior Cup crown. New head coach Niamh Fitzgerald, who was in their back row last April, has stepped up in terms of leadership.
She has worked on bringing the squad to the next level, Bryan Murray has been another key figure, and one person who cannot be forgotten is their team manager, Aisling McCormack, who helps to keep the show on the road, organising all the finer details before these big match days.
Cup rugby is unlike any other competition. It is all on one game, 80 minutes, individually and collectively leaving it all out the field, with the better team on the day usually coming out the right side of the result.
It can be unpredictable. Faulkner know they just have to go out and give the best account of themselves on Saturday afternoon.
“You can always say you’re ready for this, things can be going really well in training that week but it just comes down to gameday and who wants it more.
“We’re fit and ready to go, but our opponents are in the same position. It’s all just going to come down to the day,” added the Westmeath native.