When the ‘challengers’ win, as Richmond did in such style here in West Cork, the upheaval it causes in both clubs is remarkable.
Munster Junior champions Richmond have targeted this for a couple of years; many of the club’s committee were players on the side that last competed in the senior ranks in the late 1990s and know how valuable AIL rugby would be to the Limerick side.
“It’s an ambitious club,” says coach George Murray, who is also Munster’s video analyst. “They’ve been in and around the AIL round robins in the past few years without achieving what they wanted.
“Munster is a brilliant league, really tough, but when you get the chance to go senior, you want to take it. After the defeat to [automatically promoted] Tullamore, we felt we had it in us to go all the way. This is my first year with Richmond, but I didn’t have to change much — just give them a new angle.”
For Clonakilty, they must contemplate life in the junior ranks for the first time since 2001, a far cry from happier years in the mid-2000s when they were a force in the old AIL Division 2.
The club’s underage structures are good — they’re Munster U17 champions this year — but emigration and the retirement of quality players over the last few years has left them short on numbers for the dogfight they’ll face in the ultra-competitive Munster Junior Division 1.
Assistant coach Eddie Knowles, a mainstay of the Clon side in the 2000s, could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of déjà vu. For the fourth time this year, they blew a big lead to end up losing out; this time it was a 13-0 advantage after half an hour.
“It is a sad day. The game was an exact replica of our games during the year, we lost a big lead and we lost it and couldn’t put anything away,” he said.
“We knew we had to start well; they’ve only lost a handful of games in two years whereas we only won one out of 13 this year. We did all the hard work, but a six-point lead at half-time with that wind was nothing.
“This [relegation] has been coming for the past three years. The old team started to retire so we lost five or six guys that way, then five or six more to emigration. We’ve a good underage setup but because of where we are geographically, only one or two come through. The jobs just aren’t there.”
Further hindering Clon’s cause was the ineligibility of three dual players, back row Courtney Canning and regular half-backs Luke O’Shea and Joe Lee.
It didn’t seem to matter early on though as they looked every inch the composed senior side while a nervous Richmond struggled.
Backed by a strong wind, Clon dictated matters with Ciarán Calnan looking composed on his first senior start at out-half.
Wing Chris Spearman had the gas to beat the outside cover for a fifth-minute try and full-back James Deasy landed three kicks from five for a 13-0 advantage.
Richmond’s luck didn’t seem to be in — hooker Pat Humphries was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on, while the ball fell off the kicking tee as Brian Mullins went to strike his first attempt at goal. However, a glorious individual try from centre Mike Kelleher against the run of play gave the Limerick men a break.
Things went tit-for-tat in the third quarter, with Mullins and Deasy swapping penalties while a Clon maul was finished off by influential flanker Tony Illston before Kelleher collected a deft Mullins chip for Richmond’s second try.
Mullins converted to leave them 18-17 down before the out-half showed all his mettle to boot three crucial penalties — two monsters — and put his side ahead for the first time. Clon did score late through wing Kieran Howlin but Deasy’s quickly-taken conversion missed the mark and Richmond were able to close out the final 45 seconds to spark rapturous celebrations.
Scorers for Clonakilty: C Spearman, K Howlin, T Illston try each; J Deasy con, 2 pens.
Scorers for Richmond: M Kelleher 2 tries; B Mullins 2 cons, 4 pens.
CLONAKILTY: J Deasy; K Howlin, J Wycherley, D Lombard, K Howlin; C Calnan, M Purcell; D O’Neill, B Duggan (capt), A Foley; T Keogh, M Keohane; G McCarthy, T Illston, A Harte.
Rolling replacements: S Cotter, G Shannon, S White, C O’Donovan, P Ryan.
RICHMOND: G O’Hanlon; E Harty, M Kelleher, S Clancy, J Kelly; B Mullins, T O’Brien; B McNamara, P Humphries, P McNamara; B Woods, J Hayes; J Deegan, G Phelan, D Sheehan.
Rolling replacements: J McNamara, M O’Neill, J Tully, S Bennett, F Hogan.
Referee: B MacNeice (IRFU).