Roche hero for Lansdowne

Mark Roche was the hero on the Aviva Stadium’s back pitch on Saturday as Lansdowne FC made history by sealing their first Ulster Bank League top-tier title with a seven-point victory over Clontarf (32-25).

Lansdowne now have a massive 23 point advantage at the top of the table, as nine consecutive triumphs have turned them into an unstoppable force in the All-Ireland League.

Having only narrowly defeated their Dublin rivals 20-18 at Castle Avenue in November, head coach Mike Ruddock (who won a Grand Slam in 2005 with his native Wales) was delighted his charges held their nerve in such a pressurised situation.

Ruddock admitted: “It was exactly what we thought it would be. We only beat them by one score in Clontarf, but if you’re going to win a Championship you’ve got to win those tight games and that’s what we’ve done all the way through. We’ve won the tight games along with some big wins on the road. People called us a little bit flaky before Christmas, but we’ve proved a few doubters wrong.”

In a thoroughly entertaining first half, seven points from the boot of Craig Ronaldson (including a spectacular drop-goal), along with a couple of well-worked tries from left-wing Sean Carey and elusive centre Roche, gave Lansdowne a narrow 17-13 interval lead over their rivals, who capitalised on sustained pressure towards the Lansdowne line just past the half-hour mark with a powerful try from Number 8 Frank Cogan.

The deadly accurate Richie Lane also chipped in with two penalties and a conversion, but he was also on hand to supply the bonuses eight minutes after the restart when flanker Simon Crawford (brother of former Meath GAA star Nigel) drove over.

This helped Clontarf to move back into the ascendancy, but their momentum was shortlived as Craig Ronaldson’s 51st minute penalty was followed by a hard-earned Ron Boucher try.

Clontarf looked like they might deny the favourites their 14th league victory of 2012/’3 when replacement Colm O’Shea broke through for their third try, but with Lane’s conversion attempt rattling the post, the hosts finished the game in style with a second try from Roche in stoppage time. As a member of the Connacht & Ireland U20 squads, Roche is one of the country’s brightest prospects, and Ruddock heaped praise on the tyro.

“He (Roche) is probably the most improved player all season. I watched him closely with the Connacht U20s this year, and originally he didn’t quite make the Ireland U20s squad. Eventually with injuries he just forced his way in, and he has just got better and better ever since.

“His exposure at AIL level has helped, and it’s a good breeding ground for the younger players.”

As a result of their efforts this term, Lansdowne have ensured that the AIL silverware will be safely nestled in Dublin for a third successive season.

Ruddock’s son, Ciarán, was involved with St Mary’s College during their successful campaign last season, and revealed that the bragging rights in the Ruddock household is now set to change.

“I hadn’t realised that, but Mary’s of course won it last year. My son, Ciarán, was involved in that team. He’s had the bragging rights for 12 months with a medal!

“It’ll be nice to see him over the breakfast table tomorrow and have a chat about how he feels!” Ruddock senior smiled.

St Mary’s continue to struggle near the relegation zone following defeat to Old Belvedere . The deposed champions are in eighth place but only five ahead of Shannon as the two teams have three matches to play, including a crucial head to head on Saturday at Templeville Road.

In Division 1B, UCD closed the gap on leaders Ballynahinch with victory over Belfast Harlequins while at the other end of the table, Bruff were plunged further towards relegation when defeated by Ballymena and Dungannon pulled further clear of the danger zone when hammering Malone at Stevenson Park.

Terenure and Corinthians have made Division 2A a two horse race with victories at the weekend.

Scorers For Lansdowne: M Roche 2 tries, 1 con, S Carey, R Boucher try each, C Ronaldson 1 pen, 1 d/goal, 2 cons.

Scorers For Clontarf: F Cogan, S Crawford, C O’Shea try each, R Lane 2 pens, 2 cons.

LANSDOWNE: R McCarron; C Aherne, M Roche, S Morrissey, S Carey; C Ronaldson, P O’Driscoll; J O’Connell, T Sexton, M Moore, W Earle, T Beirne, C Ross, C Butterworth, R Boucher.

Rolling Replacements: S Collins, D O’Reilly, M Feeley, M Walsh, C Toolan.

CLONTARF: M D’Arcy; M McGrath, K Lett, E Ryan, R Lane; D Fitzpatrick, S Cronin; C Kavanagh, C O’Flynn, R Burke-Flynn, B Reilly, M Flanagan, S Crawford, A D’Arcy, F Cogan.

Rolling Replacements: J Larbey, B Barclay, C O’Keeffe, D Shanahan, C O’Shea.

Referee: E Hogan O’Connell (IRFU).

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