So wrote Barry Coughlan in this paper after Cork Con ended Shannon’s five-in-a-row hopes in 1999.
Almost two decades later, that question continues to resound – Is Irish club rugby alive? There’s hardly a better case study for the health of the All-Ireland League than Cork Con against Shannon. The only ever-present top-tier team welcoming back the record nine-time winners after a five-year exile in Division 1B.
Fourteen AIL titles between them; as many as every other club in Ireland.
Back in ’99, as ROG halted Axel, Gaillimh, Quinny, Hayes, Horan and company, 6,000 packed into Temple Hill and 500 of those dined at the pre-match corporate lunch. On Saturday, the attendance by the game’s end had grown to 250. Halfway to a dinner party.
That was a season-defining moment – perhaps an unfair comparison – but even an early-season match in October 1995 drew “5,000 enthused supporters” to Thomond Park.
Eleven days later, Munster’s first-ever European Cup game at the same venue piqued the curiosity of just 1,000 more patrons.
The attendances may have fallen from feast to famine, but has the standard?
Tom Hayes won four AILs with Shannon, captaining them to the latter two before chasing the pro dream to England in 2005. As head coach since January 2017, he’s led Shannon’s remarkable resurrection from the brink of a second relegation – even togging out at times to make up numbers – and says the standard is higher than ever.
It’s been pushed aside and separated from the professional set-up – that’s where the change is much-needed to drag the top level of the clubs back towards the professional game a little bit. We’re almost at saturation point with the amount of PRO14 games but while the status or glamour or exposure may have dropped, the quality certainly hasn’t.
“The quality now is better than anything I played 13 or 14 years ago. It was of its time. There’s an odd video still floating around and, by comparison, the skill-level of the boys today has to be lauded.
“The AIL is still a very good product for people who want to watch good rugby.”
The wedge between club and province is extended by the development squads. The result from Munster A’s match on Friday night wasn’t the update Hayes was waiting to hear – it was who he’d have available to name in his team 16 hours later.
I’m waiting for a text at ten o’clock the night before a match going ‘you don’t have X, you don’t have Y, and you might have Z’. We’re at the behest of S&C guys and physios that I don’t even know to see, have never spoken to or laid eyes on.
“You’re waiting on them to decide what’s supposedly best for a player we’d need and like to see in action.
“That’s tough for the boys who have nothing to do with Munster and they’re still at the beck and call. You’re telling them, ‘I don’t know what’s happening with position X. I’ve to wait for Munster to tell me whether we’ve got player X or not.’”
He stresses that Shannon are far from the only club in that boat, juggling ambitious pro players with those committed to one cause.
Although, he adds that Con have had success by establishing a greater distance.
“Paul McCarthy [Con assistant coach] said that 10 years ago they decided ‘we’ve to plough our own furrow and separate ourselves from Munster as much as we can’. The vast majority of their players, they’ll have them week-in, week-out.”
City of Armagh, who have enjoyed back-to-back promotions to Division 1B, even turned down any players allocated to them by Ulster.
Over the years, there’s been a drop in the age-profile of players on show. Shannon’s half-back pairing, Aran Hehir and AIL debutant Jake Flannery, are both 19. Con’s scrum-halves, Gary Bradley, son of Zebre head coach Michael, and Richie Cassidy were both making their AIL debuts.
Con manager Kenny Murphy says they still accept academy players, but they’ve moved on from those Friday night phone calls. They’ve had Tomás Quinlan (Narbonne), Rory Burke (Nottingham) and Ryan Foley (Stade Nicois, and now Ealing Trailfinders) go abroad in the last three summers too.
“We forget these fellas are 21. It’s a cruel game to make it and some fellas go across the water, so there’s a pathway if they don’t make it in their own province. We got so much out of Tomás and he was a big part of our dressing room, but in the next couple of years there’ll be another fella and another fella and it’ll keep going.
That’s the way rugby’s gone but Con will always be there. There’s no doubt the grounding of playing in this league educates them.
This summer, the IRFU withdrew proposals for a restructured AIL with a top tier which was branded ‘semi-professional’ amid widespread opposition from clubs. Murphy believes a simple increase in the number of subs permitted, from five to seven, would allow clubs to accommodate the pro players’ comings and goings. If they [the IRFU] want more professional players, there’d be a good balance then. If the professional boys are coming to take the place of a player who’s here all the time, the hit wouldn’t be as much.”
The league continues in its same format but, worryingly, without a title sponsor after Ulster Bank stepped away. Plus, while the promotion of Shannon and UCC (the third university side to crack the top-10) is a boost to Munster rugby, there’s no Connacht or Ulster representation in Division 1A.
Action on the field, however, remains as hard-fought as ever. Shannon’s top-flight return was marked by waves of attacks but over the course of the 80 minutes, they failed to mine points from nine penalties kicked into the Con 22 or two more quickly taken close to the line. A clinical Con won 27-7. Shannon’s try, scored in broken play by Ty Chan, made it 7-3 as Con were reduced to 13 men, with back-rowers Evan Mintern and Luke Cahill sin-binned. However, Shannon’s failure to extend that lead cost them dearly in the second half as Con’s dominant maul established the platform for tries by JJ O’Neill, Niall Kenneally, and Rob Jermyn.
Kenneally picked off a final-play interception close to his own tryline to run in a 95-yard, bonus-point try. A new chapter to a rivalry renewed.
: L O’Connell; JJ O’Neill, G Higgins, N Kenneally, R Jermyn; A Moynihan, G Bradley; G Duffy, V O’Brien, D Murphy; B Hayes, J McSwiney; E Mintern, R O’Neill, L Cahill.
:D Abbott, G Roche, S Dwyer, R Cassidy, J Costigan.
: J McGarry; N Randles, R Deegan, W Leonard, E Moloney; J Flannery, A Hehir; S Karlsen, T Chan, T Cusack; R Coffey, J Kriel; L Nicholas, K Browne, L Clohessy.
: L O’Halloran, C Glynn, O Ring, K Kavanagh, G Finucane.
: J Neville (IRFU).