The AIB All-Ireland senior and junior cup finals served up two quality games, with four committed teams playing with pride and passion. It was a privilege to be there.
They have a storied history, these two giants of Munster rugby but this was surely as good as any that have gone before.
Con, with several Munster-contracted players in their side, Duncan Williams, Tom Gleeson and Billy Holland from the senior squad, Stephen Archer, Scott Deasy, Ian Nagle and Peter O’Mahony from the Academy, against just two for Garryowen – scrum-half Conor Murray and hooker Mike Sherry – took the fight to the Limerick side from the start. However, it was a non-Munster player, long-serving winger Cronan Healy, who was most prominent in the early stages.
Several times they threatened, but reward finally came in the 15th minute, a superb multi-phase team try in which every player got his hands on the ball at least once, finished emphatically by winger Richie Lane.
Gradually, Garryowen came into the game, and with blindside Paul Neville leading the charge, and the Sherry brothers Michael and David prominent, they dominated the second quarter. They forced two penalties, both converted by out-half Murray, and then, just before the break, had a try in the corner with Michael Sherry emerging with the ball from the bottom of the pack. It left Con trailing at the break, 11-5, but worse, there was also a red card for second row Ian Nagle, called by the touch judge for an incident in that final ruck.
A man down for the second half, up against a rampant Garryowen pack, with two outstanding generals in Murray and out-half Willie Staunton controlling matters, six points in arrears, how did Cork Con come back to win this match?
For the entire second half, they held Garryowen scoreless, denied them a sniff of the line. With props Martin Gately and Stephen Archer (especially) magnificent, their scrum held up, while the back-row of Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony and number eight Frank Cogan were magnificent.
In the third quarter they were happy to contain, as they adjusted to being a man short; then, led by the outstanding centre Gleeson, they attacked, and attacked and got their reward with their second try of the day. First it was Lane with a strong run up the right touchline; a long Hail Mary pass into midfield just as he was tackled was won on the ground by the supporting Cogan, with Holland and O’Mahony also in support. The attack was then moved up the left wing by Healy before being stopped just short of the line. Eventually out-half Darragh Lyons touched down and with Deasy’s conversion Con were ahead 12-11 with 15 minutes to play.
They kept their pedal to the metal from there to the end, Deasy sealing the win with a late penalty.
Con coach Brian Walsh admitted Nagle’s dismissal was a turning point. He explained: “They’re a very tight-knit and a very resilient group. They felt for Ian Nagle over what happened, they back each other up, and we decided if we did go down, at least we’d go down giving it everything.
“Some teams, when they go a point up with five or six minutes left, they decide to protect it, stick it up the jumper and stop playing. But the winning of that match for us was the second penalty (scored by Deasy), precisely because we kept on playing. It meant Garryowen had to chase harder to win the game – they made a few mistakes and we capitalised.”
“That was the toughest game we played all season, by a mile,” said blindside Holland. “We played them last week – it was nothing compared to that. The intensity, the standard of play from both sides at different periods of the game, down to 14 men for so long, yet we pulled it out at the end. Ian is a great lad, not a bad bone in his body – we did it for him.”
Scorers for Cork Constitution: Tries: D. Lyons, R. Lane; Cons: S. Deasy; Pens: S. Deasy.
Scorers for Garryowen: Tries: M. Sherry; Pens: C. Murray (2).
CORK CONSTITUTION: S. Deasy; R. Lane, T. Gleeson, E. Ryan (c), C. Healy; D. Lyons, D. Williams; M. Gately, R. Quinn, S. Archer; M. O’Connell, I. Nagle; B. Holland, P. O’Mahony, F. Cogan.
Replacements: B. Hayes (O’Connell 69); A. Ryan (E. Ryan 69); D. O’Driscoll (Williams inj. 77); G. Murray (Gately 80+4).
GARRYOWEN: R. O’Mahony; I. Hanley, C. Doyle (c), K. Hartigan, A. Gaughan; W. Staunton, C. Murray; J. Harney, M. Sherry, D. Lavery; F. McKenna, E. Mackey; P. Neville, A. Kavanagh, D. Sherry.
Replacements: M. Melbourne (Mackey 64); L. Bourke (Gaughan 70); C. Hartigan (Kavanagh 70); A. McCloskey (McKenna 70).
Referee: A Rolland (IRFU).