Walsh hails Cork Con’s battling spirit

IF possession and field position counted for everything, St Mary’s College would today be still celebrating their second AIB All-Ireland League title.

But a lot more is required to win big matches and Cork Constitution showed that at Dubarry Park, Athlone on Saturday when a truly heroic defensive display combined with the virtues of commitment and opportunism enabled them to claim the coveted title for the fourth time and also complete the cup-league double.

It was always going to be a close affair between the two best teams in the tournament but few could have foreseen the drama and excitement that would captivate and fascinate the crowd before the issue was resolved.

Mary’s won the toss and handed the benefits of the strong wind to Con. And when they clearly won the front foot battle, dominated territorially and turned around only three points behind to an early Jeremy Manning penalty, they would have been more than sanguine about the eventual outcome.

The large and vocal Mary’s fan base was even happier when Gavin Dunne equalised within two minutes of the restart but they had reckoned without the spirit and skill that had brought Con this far.

Manning, making a rare appearance after missing most of the campaign through injury, somehow jinked and wriggled his way over for a try out of nothing and Richard Lane converted. Not a whole lot changed after that, Mary’s continued to dominate possession, Con continued to defend like men possessed.

To their great credit, though, Mary’s finally found a way through in the 89th minute. The marvellous Con defence, with skipper Evan Ryan marshalling his troops superbly, finally succumbed as Australian out-half Shaun McCarthy dovetailed with Gareth Logan to ghost through for a fine St Mary’s try.

Gavin Dunne, formerly of UCC, had earlier missed three out of four shots at goal, but this time displayed outstanding bottle in landing the equalising conversion from wide out on the left to force extra time.

“To be fair, we were hanging on at the end for five and six minutes,” admitted Con coach Brian Walsh. “Mary’s had thrown everything at us, they deserved something from the match and scored a great try and kicked a great conversion. The stomach sinks and the heart sinks and you wonder how you’re going to get through the next 20 minutes.”

The momentum was back with Mary’s but once again Con were equal to the challenge. On the stroke of half-time in extra-time, Peter O’Mahony, who with man of the match Frank Cogan and Ed Leamy formed a heroic back-row, gathered a loose ball when an attempted grubber kick by Dunne was blocked down.

Evan Ryan, Duncan Williams and Manning swept into counter attack and the seventy metre move was rounded off by Cronan Healy who cut in off his wing and beat a couple of tackles before diving over triumphantly at the posts.

Lane converted and there was no way back for Mary’s.

“The spirit of both sides was testament to the value of the league,” said Walsh. “Two well coached teams played an excellent brand of rugby without a dirty swipe and it was a fitting finale to what has been a great league.

“We operate in an environment in which fellas make their own decisions. We try to make them grow as people and players in terms of responsibility they have to each other in the way we train and everybody buys into that.

“You could see that right through the game and when it comes to tight games, it’s about that environment and that quality of character that gets you through. If they fight hard for each other and get up and make another tackle and another tackle, that’s where our defence comes from. It’s not just system, it’s a willingness to get up and help the fella next to you.

“We didn’t have that much possession but we did the right thing with the ball that we had and scored a couple of great tries. I thought the pack was outstanding, Stephen Archer, Frank Cogan, Peter O’Mahony, they were all outstanding and Jeremy Manning fitted in seamlessly.”

CORK CONSTITUTION: D Lyons; R Lane, S Zebo, E Ryan, C Healy; J Manning, D Williams; M Gateley, R Quinn, S Archer; M O’Connell, I Nagle; E Leamy, P O’Mahony, F Cogan.

Replacements: B Hayes for O’Connell (60); G Murray for Gateley (71); B Cuttriss for Nagle, (et); A Ryan for Williams (et).

ST MARY’S COLLEGE: G Dunne; R Doherty, S Grissing, M Sexton, D Fanning; S McCarthy, C McPhillips; J McGrath, Ritchie Sweeney, Rob Sweeney; S Bradshaw, R Copeland; D Hall, P Nash, H Hogan.

Replacements: C McMahon for McGrath (injured) (ht); G Logan for Bradshaw (56); G Hickie for Richie Sweeney (70); B O’Flanagan for Nash (72); C Quinn for McPhillips (et); C Donohoe for Sexton (et); S O’Flanagan for Doherty (et).

Referee: A Rolland (IRFU).

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