Fittingly, it is the top-two finishers in the table that will battle it for All-Ireland League honours on Sunday, Cork Constitution chasing their second title in three years and Clontarf looking to be crowned champions for the third time in six seasons.
These teams have been the cream of the crop in Division 1A this season, with Brian Hickey’s Cork Con registering 15 wins and 13 bonus points to set a new points record of 73 at the summit. Meanwhile, Clontarf have bounced back from last year’s fifth place finish to claim second spot, dethroning title holders Lansdowne in recent weeks with back-to-back wins.
Andy Wood’s men landed the result of the league phase with a superb 36-8 win over Lansdowne on the nearby back pitch, earning home advantage for last Saturday‘s semi-final in which a strong wind-backed start steered them to a 23-15 victory. Matt D’Arcy’s ninth try of the campaign was added to by Sean O’Brien’s eighth and the clincher in the corner from Michael Courtney.
Courtney and Connacht signing Angus Lloyd are two of the Trinity contingent that have strengthened ‘Tarf’s squad this season, the latter forming a dynamic half-back pairing with Tullamore man David Joyce, who has amassed 124 points. They are also boosted by the recent return of Ireland Sevens international Mick McGrath, one of the key men from the 2014 and 2016 title successes.
“Obviously we were a bit disappointed with ourselves last year and how we ended up,” said Clontarf number 8 and captain Michael Noone. “Clontarf are always there or thereabouts. Massively proud of the guys to have put ourselves in this position. It’s a long season. There was a good few breaks with international windows and club games, with guys coming and going. The aim is to really peak this weekend.
“We’re starting to do that, look to do that anyway. We had a bit of a blip a few weeks ago (losing to Terenure), but we’re starting to come good now. There’s guys here that are veterans of the league. There’s a lot of ex-pros playing. They know what they need to do and the same goes across for Cork Con, the exact same. They’ve a lot of experience there, both sides really know when to come into it.
Cork Con and ourselves usually end up on this first weekend in May. Obviously last year we weren’t there. We’re under no illusions, we haven’t beaten them this year in the league. It’s a final, everyone is back. It’ll be an interesting encounter.
The probable wing showdown between McGrath and Ireland Under-20 starlet Sean French is worth the ticket price alone. French has quickly become a big attacking weapon for Constitution, scoring a hat-trick against UCD, two tries against Garryowen, and a superb solo effort during last Sunday‘s 23-3 semi-final defeat of Dublin University.
The final brings together two of the club game’s most impressive out-halves, Joyce coming up against current Ireland Club international number 10 Aidan Moynihan who is in a rich vein of form. His 18-point haul against Trinity last week took his season’s tally to 162, while classy operators dominate midfield too with Con captain Niall Kenneally and Shane Daly lining up against D’Arcy and O’Brien.
While the backs may have grabbed the headlines, the two finalists also possess packs of the highest calibre. Conor Kindregan’s Stateside move broke up arguably the best second row partnership in the league, but Evan Mintern has proven a more than able deputy alongside Brian Hayes, a talismanic figure for the Leesiders. Watch out too for back rowers Joe McSwiney and Luke Cahill who shone for the Ireland Club XV against Scotland.
“We see a lot of similarities in Clontarf to ourselves. We’ve played them for years, won a final (in 2017) and the same five or six fellas were in the same five or six positions for both teams that day, ” said Hayes. “You see Mick (Noone) there and Luke Cahill are probably the same number 8s for the two teams. Matt D’Arcy and Niall (Kenneally) have been the two best 12s in the country for the last four or five years.
“(Senior coach) Paul Barr came back in this year and we changed a lot of the way we played. We kinda changed the way we approached the league this year in terms of playing style. It’s evident in the way we played the league this year, the standings and how that ended up. At the same token, we’ve been on the other side of it.
“Finishing fourth and won the league. Finishing second, third. In the last four years, we finished in the top-four in four different positions every year. It would be a waste of 18 good games to turn around and go back down the road without the cup, as they say.
“I think Aidan Moynihan has come in at 10 and pulled the strings very well. He’s moving us around the pitch a lot better than we had been. We’ve young fellas on the wing that are finishing tries that they really shouldn’t be finishing. Which helps a lot as well.”
Constitution’s consistency owes much to their workhorse forwards and mean defence, which was the best across the 18 rounds with just 15 points conceded per game. The set piece battle will be as crucial as ever, both sides possessing potent mauls with much depending on the darts of Paddy Finlay and Vincent O’Brien. Two youngsters to note in the front row ranks are Declan Adamson and Patrick Casey, both fresh from Under-20 rugby and making an immediate splash at senior level.
Clontarf will need big performances up front from the in-form Cormac Daly, Royce Burke-Flynn and skipper Noone, as they look to avenge Con’s two wins from the regular season – 16-13 at Castle Avenue and 34-24 at Temple Hill. This is the third time in four seasons that the clubs have met in the showpiece decider, with Joey Carbery memorably inspiring ‘Tarf’s 2016 final win and Tomas Quinlan doing likewise for Con twelve months later.
- December 1, 2018: Clontarf 13 Cork Constitution 16, Castle Avenue
- February 16, 2019: Cork Constitution 34 Clontarf 24, Temple Hill
Jack Power; Michael Courtney, Sean O’Brien, Matt D’Arcy, Cian O’Donoghue; David Joyce, Angus Lloyd; Ivan Soroka, Paddy Finlay, Royce Burke-Flynn, Cormac Daly, Ben Reilly, Tony Ryan, Adrian D’Arcy, Michael Noone (capt).
Declan Adamson, Tom Ryan, Vakh Abdaladze, Andrew Feeney, Conor Kelly, Mick McGrath, Brian Deeny.
Liam O’Connell, Sean French, Shane Daly, Niall Kenneally (capt), Rob Jermyn, Aidan Moynihan, Jason Higgins, Duncan Williams, Greg Higgins, Alex McHenry, Jonathan Wren, Gavin Duffy, Vincent O’Brien, Dylan Murphy, Brian Hayes, Evan Mintern, Joe McSwiney, Kevin Sheahan, Luke Cahill, Patrick Casey, Brendan Quinlan, James Murphy, Ross O’Neill, Cathal O’Flaherty, Max Abbott, Dave Hyland.
Jonny Erskine (IRFU)
All-Ireland League Division 1A – Recent Finals/Winners:
Lansdowne (final: 19-17 v Cork Constitution, Aviva Stadium)
Cork Constitution (final: 25-21 v Clontarf, Aviva Stadium)
Clontarf (final: 28-25 v Cork Constitution, Aviva Stadium)
Lansdowne (final: 18-17 v Clontarf, Aviva Stadium)
Clontarf (first in league)
Lansdowne (first in league)
St. Mary’s College (first in league)
Old Belvedere (final: 20-17 v Cork Constitution, Donnybrook)
Cork Constitution (final: 17-10 v St. Mary’s College, Dubarry Park)
Shannon (final: 19-19 v Clontarf, Thomond Park aet - Shannon won via first try scored)
Cork Constitution (final: 18-8 v Garryowen, Musgrave Park)
All-Ireland League Division 1A – Champions' List:
9 (1994/95, 1995/96, 1996/97, 1997/98, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09)
5 (1990/91, 1998/99, 2007/08, 2009/10, 2016/17)
3 (1991/92, 1993/94, 2006/07)
3 (2012/13, 2014/15, 2017/18)
2 (2013/14, 2015/16)
2 (1999/00, 2011/12)