Mark Sexton took on the mantle of super sub as his brace of tries helped St. Mary’s College secure their second ever Ulster Bank League title.
A brother of Leinster and Ireland star Jonathan Sexton, replacement centre Mark Sexton inspired his side with a crucial 51st minute score at Templeville Road.
He followed up with a 78th-minute match-winning try as 14-man Young Munster saw their early lead erased at a end of a thrilling final day clash.
Willie Staunton had kicked Young Munster into an early lead, with the visitors recovering well from the sixth minute sending-off of winger Darragh O’Neill.
O’Neill saw red for a tip tackle but Munsters dominated the first 25 minutes, and their efforts were rewarded when hooker Ger Slattery muscled over for a converted try.
Gavin Dunne got St. Mary’s off the mark late in the first half, but the Limerick side were good value for their 13-3 interval lead.
But Staunton could only add two more penalties as St. Mary’s gradually got on top, with Sexton and place-kicker Dunne playing key roles in their comeback.
Despite being out of the title race, the Cookies were fired up right from the off. An early turnover was the product of some superb defence from the forwards.
Darragh O’Neill broke forward with purpose on the left wing, but his afternoon was cut short just minutes later when he caught Darren Hudson with a dangerous tackle.
Referee Peter Fitzgibbon reached for his red card and Munsters were facing an uphill battle. To their immense credit, Mike Prendergast’s men took the lead soon after.
Staunton misconnected with a long range penalty in the ninth minute. Yet his second shot at the posts from wider out, two minutes later, was brilliantly tucked away for a 3-0 lead.
St. Mary’s struggled to build a platform and had precious little possession in the opening quarter hour, at the end of which they had full-back Dunne in the sin-bin.
Dunne’s late challenge on Declan Bannon as the Young Munster full-back chased his own kick earned him a yellow, and Staunton landed his second left-sided penalty.
Munsters, with the wind behind them, were territorially dominant and they deservedly broke through for the opening try in the 23rd minute.
Impressive lock Neville Melbourne took a clean lineout catch and a well-orchestrated maul led to Slattery driving over to the right of the posts.
Staunton’s conversion pushed the margin out to 13-0, before St. Mary’s threatened from deep with Stephen Grissing and Philip Brophy leading a break.
On the half hour mark, the hosts started to click into gear. Gareth Austin’s offload out of a tackle sent prop Richie Sweeney charging into the Munsters’ half.
The move was kept going with some excellent passing, however Staunton scrambled back to put in a tremendous try-saving tackle on Conor Hogan.
After a succession of close-in penalties, St. Mary’s finally opted to go for goal with Dunne clipping over a 38th minute kick from in front of the posts.
Munsters, who had flanker James O’Neill sin-binned for a blatant ruck offence, missed a late chance to add to their tally – Staunton was short with a penalty attempt on the stroke of half-time.
The Cookies continued to look the better side in the third quarter, retaining possession and winning the breakdown battle with man-of-the-match Liam Og Murphy to the fore.
With his back row colleague O’Neill returning, Staunton added another three points to give St. Mary’s quite a mountain to climb at 16-3 down.
Peter Smyth’s decision to introduce Sexton proved a masterstroke. The big centre, who is only recently back from an injury lay-off, fended off two tacklers to dart over for a try that really galvanised the hosts.
Dunne added the extras and suddenly it was game on again at 16-10. As the hour mark approached, Staunton responded with his fourth successful penalty.
But the numerical advantage was beginning to prove a factor as Munsters visibly tired. Hugh Hogan and the St. Mary’s pack were more prominent as the second half wore on, with scrum half Matt D’Arcy also coming into his own.
Dunne knocked over two penalties in quick succession to whittle the Cookies’ lead down to 16-13, setting up a grandstand finish in the process.
At this stage, word came through that second-placed Clontarf were leading Lansdowne and that St. Mary’s would have to win if they wanted to be crowned champions.
A gutsy final push got them their reward, but Young Munster certainly made it difficult for them. Mark Doyle came up with an important turnover as St. Mary’s pressed.
Shortly afterwards, Hudson initiated a promising break but D’Arcy was bundled into touch at the right corner and he was held up in the next phase.
But Smyth’s side showed admirable composure as the minutes ticked by, and after hammering away close to the try-line D’Arcy’s pass from a ruck sent Sexton crashing over for the decisive try.
Dunne added the conversion for good measure to open up a four-point cushion and the league crown belonged to St. Mary’s, twelve years after their maiden success.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU)