By Brendan O’Brien, Aviva Stadium
Clontarf 21 Cork Constitution 25
Cork Constitution are Ulster Bank League 1A champions for the first time in seven years after avenging last season’s narrow loss to Clontarf in a gripping finale at a sun-kissed Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
This wasn’t the all-singing, all-dancing affair of 2016 when Joey Carbery and Darren Sweetnam lit up the big day but it was enthralling nonetheless with the Munster side squeezing through in a game where the lead swapped hands four times in the first 45 minutes.
The winners scored just one try against three from the reigning champions but will argue that Clontarf’s escalating penalty count left them with little option but to punish them from penalties, which they did via the boot of Tomas Quinlan.
The out-half kicked six, plus one conversion. None were missed.
Con were playing a third knockout game in as many weekends after their semi-final win on the Aviva back pitch against Lansdowne and the Bateman Cup final defeat of Old Belvedere. That may have aided their quicker start.
Clontarf, inactive last weekend, found themselves pinned back in their own half for much of the opening 40 minutes and they were made resort to means fair and, increasingly, foul in order to keep their try line intact.
That came at a price.
Tighthead prop Royce Burke-Flynn was shown a yellow card on the half hour, which seemed to come for persistent team fouling. His transgression was their eight up to that point and Quinlan extracted payment with four first-half penalties.
‘Tarf had also lost blindside flanker Anthony Ryan to injury just four minutes in and yet they still found the tunnel at half-time with a 14-12 advantage thanks to two superb blitzkriegs on the Con defensive line that coughed up a pair of tries.
Mick McGrath was integral to both.
McGrath has been on the books with Leinster - he also had a trial with Leicester - and it wouldn’t be hard to see other suitors come calling for the winger’s services after he helped make the first five-pointer and scored the second himself.
The first, 13 minutes in, went to Matt D’Arcy.
The centre sent McGrath through the cover with an inside pass that chimed perfectly with the wing’s run off the shoulder. McGrath’s return pass, after a beast of a fend on Jason Higgins, was gathered by D’Arcy and touched down.
The second was even harder to stomach.
Con were camped on the Clontarf line with Burke-Flynn just sent to the bin until the concession of a free-kick and then a penalty allowed the Dubliners to navigate a way up the field. Then a spilled Garryowen by Quinlan added momentum to the move.
McGrath again punched through with some hard yards before touching down himself a few phases later. Quinlan’s fourth penalty wrapped up the scores in the first period and the out-half’s fifth, a handful of minutes after the break, saw Con take the lead for the final time.
This one was built-on. Buttressed.
Brian Hayes, formerly of Munster and Aurillac, made it happen.
It was Hayes who hammered the Clontarf hammer, dumping McGrath with a punishing tackle in the Con 22, and the lock again who carried the ball deep into the opposing 22 a few phases later after his No.8 Michael Noone fly-hacked a loose ball forward.
Rob Jermyn ended up touching down and Quinlan converted.
An eight-point lead with 30 to go was no bad position to be in and that stretched to eleven against 14 men when Clontarf nine Sam Cronin left for the bin and Quinlan clipped over his fifth penalty. Job done? Not nearly.
Yet again, Clontarf struck for a try while a man down.
Winning a scrum against the head in the Con 22 set the platform and Leinster lock Mick Kearney eventually bundled his way over under the posts a few phases later. With full-back Rob Keogh adding the conversion there was only four between them.
Clontarf manufactured a handful of half-chances from that point on but a combination of Con’s defence and some costly individual errors kept the scoreboard as was and allowed Con to add a league title to the Bateman and Munster Cups already claimed this year.
Clontarf: R Keogh; M Brown, C O’Brien, M Darcy, M McGrath; D Joyce, S Cronin; V Abdaladze, J Harris-Wright, R Burke-Flynn; B Reilly, M Kearney; A Ryan, K Moran, M Noone.
Replacements: A D’Arcy for Ryan (4); I Soroka for Keogh (31-40) and Abdaladze (52); B Byrne for Harris-Wright (HT); M Sutton for Joyce (60); E Browne for Kearney (66-71); J Power for Cronin (69); V Abdaladze for Burke-Flynn (77); S Cronin for Keogh (78).
Cork Constitution: S Daly; L O’Connell, N Hodson, N Kenneally, R Jermyn; T Quinlan, J Higgins; L O’Connor, V O’Brien, G Sweeney; B Hayes, C Kindregan; G Lawler, J Murphy, L Cahill.
Replacements: R Burke for Sweeney (HT); K O’Byrne for O’Brien (46); S O’Leary for Lawler (56); V O’Brien for O’Byrne (56-59); JJ O’Neill for Hodson (65); Hodson for O’Neill (66); G Duffy for O’Connor (71); J Poland for Higgins (71); L O’Connor for Duffy (80).
Referee: S Gallagher (IRFU).