Cork Constitution’s enviable cup pedigree shone through once again as they won the Ulster Bank Bateman Cup for the third successive year with a 24-9 victory over Clontarf.
Darren Sweetnam's late breakaway try capped off a superb afternoon's work from the defending champions as they gave departing head coach Tom Tierney a winning send-off at Temple Hill.
Three David Joyce penalties, in response to converted tries from Con back rowers Luke Cahill and James Ryan, kept Clontarf in touch at the break, trailing 14-9.
But with a strong wind behind them, Tierney's men saw out the result thanks to a Darragh Lyons drop goal and Sweetnam's 74th-minute touchdown. They were also helped by a tremendous individual performance from man-of-the-match Graeme Lawler (pictured below), who shone throughout in the forward exchanges.
The winning margin was surprising given that Constitution had lost their last four Ulster Bank League games and Clontarf are through to next weekend's play-offs. However, with persistent lineout issues and a frustrating amount of turnovers, things never really clicked for 'Tarf this afternoon.
Andy Wood's charges played with a stiff breeze at their backs in the opening half but failed to profit. 'Tarf did all the early attacking, in and around the Con 22, but a couple of choke tackles involving Zimbabwean international Lawler and hooker Max Abbott relieved the pressure on the hosts.
A thumping tackle by Karl Moran on James Murphy kept Con contained deep in their half, however a breathless spell saw the likes of Lawler and strong-running centre Niall Kenneally make some hard-earned yards.
There were plenty of turnovers at a fiercely competitive breakdown and defences were on top at the tail-end of the first quarter, as breaks from Clontarf captain Sam Cronin and Con flanker Murphy were foiled.
'Tarf finally opened the scoring in the 22nd minute when out-half Joyce drilled a long range penalty over, however lineout issues prevented the visitors from building pressure closer in.
But his opposite number, Darragh Lyons, increased his influence with a well-struck touchfinder, setting up a promising lineout position in the 'Tarf 22. The Con pack worked the maul, patiently eeking out the yards before flanker Cahill (pictured below) gleefully dived over to the right of the posts.
Lyons curled over a terrific conversion and Constitution added a second try just four minutes later. After Cahill made the initial incision, winger Rob Jermyn did brilliantly to keep the ball alive near the right touchline, breaking through two tackles before offloading for number 8 Ryan to go over in the right corner.
Clontarf felt the final pass was forward but the try was awarded by referee David Wilkinson and Lyons used the wind to perfection to draw in his conversion kick, giving the Leesiders an 11-point buffer.
Crucially, the visitors reduced the arrears in sight of the interval. Carries from Ireland Club skipper Matt D'Arcy and replacement Ivan Soroka led to Joyce's second three-pointer and he added a third penalty goal in injury-time following good work from Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne.
Nonetheless, Lyons made sure Con's first sortie into 'Tarf territory on the restart resulted in three points, nailing a drop goal after a half-break from the abrasive Cahill. The north Dubliners were still struggling at lineout time and had Con winger Ned Hodson held onto a flat Lyons pass close to the posts, a try seemed likely.
It was evident that Clontarf's decision making was continuing to let them down, a forward pass ruining a breakout sparked by a powerful surge from replacement winger Conor O'Brien, the Ireland Under-19 international.
They lacked the assurance of cup specialists Con, coughing up turnover ball via the breakdown and loose distribution, as they failed to capitalise on snappy runs from backs D'Arcy (pictured below) and Dermot O'Meara.
Tomas Quinlan, a second half replacement for Con, was narrowly off target with a long range penalty attempt entering the final quarter, and he also pushed a drop goal shot to the left and wide.
Clontarf's sense of frustration grew as good approach work from Max McFarland and Tom Byrne was spoiled by an Abbott turnover and they were unable to take advantage of their stronger scrum. The home side looked comfortable when making the tackles, with second rows Cathal O'Flaherty and Lawler to the fore.
Just when it looked like Clontarf were making headway, a costly turnover summed up their day. Having gone through the phases, the ball was lost in contact and Lawler's inviting offload sent Jermyn countering away from the Con 22. He broke a tackle and linked neatly to his left with the supporting Sweetnam who raced away to go over unopposed behind the posts.
Quinlan added the conversion and there was simply no way back for Clontarf. A serious shoulder injury to Joyce, which prompted an earlier than expected conclusion to the game, means he will miss next Saturday's Division 1A semi-final trip to Terenure College.
Cork Con's season may be over before they would have wanted it to be, but they break up for the summer with the Bateman Cup safely retained. Today's success saw them become only the second club in the competition's history to complete a three-in-a-row of title wins – Lansdowne were first to achieve the feat back in 1929-1931.
TIME LINE: 22 minutes – Clontarf penalty: David Joyce – 0-3; 28 mins – Cork Constitution try: Luke Cahill – 5-3; conversion: Darragh Lyons – 7-3; 32 mins – Cork Constitution try: James Ryan – 12-3; conversion: Darragh Lyons – 14-3; 37 mins – Clontarf penalty: David Joyce – 14-6; 40+2 mins – Clontarf penalty: David Joyce – 14-9; Half-time – Cork Constitution 14 Clontarf 9; 43 mins – Cork Constitution drop goal: Darragh Lyons – 17-9; 62 mins – Cork Constitution penalty: missed by Tomas Quinlan – 17-9; 74 mins – Cork Constitution try: Darren Sweetnam – 22-9; conversion: Tomas Quinlan – 24-9; Full-time – Cork Constitution 24 Clontarf 9
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU)