They have already won their first Munster Senior Cup in ten years, are in the semi-final of the AIB All-Ireland Cup and after Saturday’s 18-5 defeat of UL/Bohemian in the AIB League, are not without hope of reaching the knock-out stages in that competition.
“I’d call it a cracking season”, Cunningham declared. “We lost four league games in a row but only by a fraction. We went down 8-6 to Buccaneers in Athlone where it’s never easy to get a result. We lost 12-11 to Con here the week after beating them in the cup final and it was always going to be a hard ask to beat a team of the standard of Con in successive weeks.
“After that we won a cup game against Buccs before losing to a UCD team that played beautiful rugby. We had our worst display against Terenure and had to work ourselves out of that. A week later we met St Mary’s here in the cup and to win that was a great test of character.
“It was great to have a week off after that. We probably started off sluggishly today because of that against a good UL/Bohs team in second place in the league and deservedly so. They’ve been scoring lots of tries but we shut them out for most of the game. People say we lost four league games in a row and must be in trouble but if you actually look at the hard, cold facts, we’ve had a cracking season.”
Cunningham, who only agreed to another year at the helm at Garryowen when Rob Henderson decided instead to try his luck in Spain, will opt out at the end of the season. Yet he is excited at what the next few weeks might hold in store.
“To be still involved in the league at this stage is great, four games left, Dolphin away, Blackrock at home, Clontarf away and Galwegians here, all winnable,” he insisted.
“We’re in the semi-final of the cup against Clonakilty here and we’ve already won the Munster Cup. Call that a bad season? I don’t see it like that — and we’re the only team in all competitions.”
He maintains that Garryowen are doing well because they have a good team and have had a good team over the past few years. They are now beginning to mature, he maintains, and starting to win the close games that they used to lose in the past. And he accepts: “Every game from here in is a cup game for us.”
Saturday’s “derby” at Dooradoyle attracted what by today’s AIL standards was a fine crowd but the outcome came as a bitter disappointment for UL/Bohs who failed to do themselves justice having taken the lead on the half hour with a splendid try by right winger Mark McPhail.
Furthermore, Garryowen had the hugely influential Peter Malone in the sin-bin for ten minutes in the first half and yet turned over on level pegging when a Bohs handling error presented Ciaran O’Boyle with a clear run in from halfway.
Picking up the tempo as the game progressed, Garryowen gradually took over with Eoghan Hickey (just back from his best game so far in the Munster shirt in Scotland the night before) knocking over a couple of penalties as well as adding the points to a fine forward try by hooker Damien Varley.
At the end, it was 18-5 to Garryowen who are now back in contention for a top four place and with Cunningham extolling the virtues of several of his most promising young players.
“Mark Melbourne has been outstanding,” he said. “He’s always been a good player but now he’s physically maturing and mentally as well. He’s had a fabulous season and came off the bench for Munster last night so they’re recognising that fact as well.
A lot depends where you play him. You can play him at six, he’s a great line-out option and a great footballer.
“Damien Varley has been playing all season and got a wonderful barnstorming try. That kind of physicality in European football will be huge, again in due course. Eugene McGovern has done very well since he joined us. That was a hard decision for him and he has stuck at it.”