THE race to win a place in the AIB League Division One play-offs enters its final hurdle this weekend with seven teams still in the hunt for one of the top four places.
Only three points separate first from seventh, but second-placed Dolphin are hoping to reach the Division One semi-finals for the first time in their history.
Head coach Dave O’Mahony has been at the centre of the Cork clubs’ resurgence this season, and during his five years in charge at Dolphin, the former Ireland scrum half’s sterling work has finally helped make the club a competitive force amongst the elite of the game.
With meagre resources and a small, united squad, he could not have asked for a tougher final regulation day fixture with the play-offs so tantalisingly close.
A date with eight-times AIL champions, Shannon, in Coonagh awaits, and even a win might not be enough to secure a semi-final berth. As well as Dolphin, Con and Shannon, Garryowen, Clontarf, St Mary’s College and Blackrock are all in contention and calculators will be at the ready when the final whistles blow across all venues this weekend.
“The strange thing is you could win and still not make the top four which would be soul-destroying,” says O’Mahony. “We need to win first — that’s the main priority. It might come down to points difference; if we win and we could finish anywhere from first to fifth. It depends what happens in the other venues.
“Our focus is on Shannon first of all; they’re a very experienced team at this stage of the season and have a great record, and they’re at home which is a big challenge for us.”
Andrew O’Driscoll (knee) and Warren de Bruin (ankle) remain O’Mahony’s only two injury concerns. Both spent last Sunday and Monday at the cryotherapy chamber at White’s Hotel, Wexford to help speed up recovery but O’Mahony is confident they’ll be available for the biggest game in the club’s history.
“It would be massive if we made it into the semis,” added O’Mahany. “It’d show that when you put the right structures in place, work hard enough and have the right people involved, even a small club with limited resources with a small number of players can compete at the top level.
“We’ve been improving year on year from survival to promotion to survival to sixth last season — now we’re knocking on the door. The intention is always to win a trophy and you’re not considered one of the big teams until you do such a thing. This season we’ve beaten Clontarf, Blackrock and Garryowen last weekend. We’re there on merit.”
Dolphin are already guaranteed a place in next season’s reformatted ‘Top Eight’ Division 1A League, a division that will comprise the six other sides vying for play-off berths this weekend as well as UL Bohemians. Next season the top three in Division 1A will be joined in a play-off semi-final by the Division 1B champions.
O’Mahony hopes this new league can reinvigorate the club game but is concerned that the proposed Anglo-Welsh-Irish A League could impact on the refreshing new AIB League format that has been welcomed by the Division’s top coaches.
“I’d be very disappointed if an A League develops as proposed — certainly it would be very short-sighted. It would make it very, very difficult for the clubs. Not only would they need professional players to fill those A-teams, you’re going to need the next level down as well.
“Munster have only 35 contracted players and, at any one time, they’ll have five or six injuries — how they can field two teams in a week without taking amateur players from the clubs will be interesting.
“I would hope that the IRFU would look at developing the club game, perhaps maybe even developing it down the road into a semi-professional set-up and bring it up to a level where it’d be a feeder to the professional game.
“Young professional players, academy players and development contracted players learn a hell of a lot from playing regularly in club rugby. Having to perform and having to be leaders and top performers at that level is very important for their development.”
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