UCC take on Cork Constitution this evening (Mardyke, 8pm) in a game with a fair backstory.
Con and the College have had many a tussle over the years, but there’s a different context to this one.
It’s not the Munster Senior Cup, but the top flight of All-Ireland League. The big show in the Irish club game.
“From UCC’s perspective, it’s the highest standing we’ve ever achieved in terms of the AIL,” said Jack Casey, UCC rugby development officer. “It’s a massive step for us. The last AIL 1A all-Cork derby was probably four years ago, when Dolphin were in the top flight, so Cork rugby has been starved of top-end clashes in that sense.
Getting the opportunity to see what the top table is like and what we need to do to compete is great.
“There’s been a lot of migration from UCC to Con traditionally — the likes of Donal Lenihan, Jerry Holland, Johnny Holland and many more — and Cork can be justifiably proud of what Con have achieved. They’ve maintained their 1A status for all the years of the AIL, they’ve won it five times... they’re a team that everyone aspires to be like, but it’s also a derby and, in every sport, a derby makes a great occasion. You’ll have guys playing against former teammates, future teammates, so the mix is very interesting, and the fact that it’s something the Cork rugby public has been starved of, it all means it’s an occasion to be savoured.
“You have the collective experience of Con against the off-the-cuff youth of College, and it should make for a very interesting tactical battle.”
The cliche of youth versus experience is no longer that valid, says Casey.
“It was true enough going back a few years; it would have been a case of the young students and the mature club player, and College teams were younger, so they appeared fitter and faster, but a recent IRFU report suggested the main age bracket for players now is between 19 to 25, so if someone comes to UCC at 19 and leaves at 24, he could be playing the vast majority of his senior rugby with College. The players with clubs who aren’t in UCC tend to be that age group also, so you’re meeting in the middle, almost, compared to years ago.
After that, you have lads emigrating, going to Dublin to work, all of those issues, so you can see that age group is very well represented.
Lurking slightly offstage all the time is the professional game, of course. Casey points out that UCC offers another route to the pro game, but stresses that education is the bottom line.
“We’ve been lucky in terms of having academy players like Jack O’Sullivan and James French from last year, but the way the structure is going, it’s hard for players to graduate to a full professional contract unless they’re already in that pathway.
“It can be done, but it’s difficult. What we’re trying to create here is a potential opportunity for guys who come out of school — who may not get an Academy contract but who want to play professionally, either with Munster or abroad — and who want to train and prepare to the highest levels, using the expertise and facilities here. The trick is trying to get the balance right between the academic and the sporting demands; getting a player to play to the level he’s capable of and graduating with a degree, that’s success to us. They may be picked up by Munster, or a team overseas, but the bottom line is academic first, sport second.
For instance, we play our last league game slap bang in the middle of exam time, in December, which is going to be challenging for our senior players, but the goodwill of the College and lecturers helps in facilitating that. It’s the unique aspect of playing for your College.
“When I first joined UCC, I asked someone for advice and he said there were four pillars — the players studied hard, trained hard, played hard, and partied hard — but you never went to excess with any or the whole thing went out of balance. The culture of UCC rugby is something to be admired, because the collective spirit means a player in his final year will help out a player in his first year. Everyone is under the same pressure, academically, so it makes for a great place to mix sport and academics.”