Why I'd rather watch Cork Con than Samoans
IT'S a question of head versus heart. Tomorrow afternoon, the head will be in Lansdowne Road running the rule over Ireland's performance against Samoa, but the heart will be in Temple Hill.
Cork Constitution take on Dolphin, the latest installment in a city rivalry that dates back to the start of the last century.
Last Monday, at the Guinness Rugby Writers awards, Con were deservedly crowned club of the year after last season's All-Ireland League and Cup double, with a flotilla of Con blazers making its way to the Pale to celebrate.
Although this heart has long resided with their opponents tomorrow, the head has to acknowledge the achievements of Con over many years and their status as one of the foremost and best-run clubs in the Irish game. Last April, the two sides squared off on successive weekends in Temple Hill, in regular and league play-off matches, and they were both superbly organised occasions -- with large crowds of proper rugby people enjoying the match, atmosphere and post-match barbecues.
Con won both games and part of the Dolphin ritual over many years of playing second fiddle has been a few post-match pints in the Con clubhouse and forcing a smile when the banter rains down, as it did in April and again last Monday.
The Cons slag us about sucking the hind teat in Cork rugby and pilfering Jim Kiernan and Tomas O'Leary, while the 'Fins respond with accusations of Con corralling the cream of Cork rugby (Paul McCarthy, George O'Sullivan, Ultan O'Callaghan, Eric Crotty, the Mahony brothers, etc) with promises of representative advancement -- deliberately keeping their city rivals down in the process.
All good-humoured, of course, and they'll be at it wholesale again tomorrow. That Division 1A match kicks off at 2.30 -- the same time as Ireland v Samoa -- and the Cons drew a line in the sand when asked to switch the fixture to avoid a clash.
They were completely right to do so. Why should Con have to accommodate the IRFU's misguided ticketing policy when they have their own house in order and can expect a bumper attendance tomorrow?
Against all the odds, there has been something of a resurgence in the significance of All-Ireland League rugby in an era when the professional game holds sway.
We saw the continued power of the club game when they were able to force a Union climb-down on the international tickets issue and there have been very encouraging signs of its relevance, playing-wise, through the amount of AIL graduates making the professional grade.
There has been a perception, dating back to Brian Ashton's unhappy tenure as Ireland coach and up to Michael Cheika's spell at Leinster, that overseas coaches plying their trade in Ireland's professional game have viewed the AIL as an irrelevance.
Yet, Munster's Australian coach Tony McGahan spoke glowingly last month about the AIL's role in Damien Varley's development and the Garryowen hooker is just one of a clutch of club players to have come through in recent times.
Sean Cronin starts at hooker for Ireland tomorrow and it was his performances for Shannon that saw Connacht take a punt and give him a professional contract. Similarly, second-row Devin Toner used Lansdowne games to gradually work his way into Leinster, while flanker Sean O'Brien caught the eye playing for Clontarf.
Two weeks ago, Munster took a weakened team to Ravenhill and fashioned a super 16-6 victory, despite Ulster playing three South African internationals.
The visitors thrived on strong performances from Ivan Dineen, Scott Deasy, Billy Holland, the excellent Ian Nagle, James Coughlan and Peter O'Mahony to fashion victory -- all players who have played far more AIL games than they have professional.
Then last Tuesday, we had a similarly encouraging tale in Galway. Connacht coach Eric Elwood rested his front-liners against Samoa and turned to AIL players Shane Monahan, Darragh Fanning, Eoin Griffin and Rob Sweeney, who were not only physically capable of mixing it at that level, but also looked to have the skill levels required.
At a time when the running of the professional game in this country is coming in for sustained and justified criticism, the clubs deserve recognition for the positive effect they are having on the game.
The clubs are showing the way -- as the big day out in Temple Hill will demonstrate tomorrow. And the result? Another head-wrecking, heart-breaking win for the Cons. Such is life.