Tony Ward: Club clashes deserve a fitting finale - and packed crowds to savour drama
Apathy of 'new-age' fans towards AIL is frustrating – but it won't ruin a golden moment for Belvo
Today is the biggest day on the Irish club rugby calendar. No, let me try that again: the final series of games in the All-Ireland League was, once upon a time, the biggest day in rugby in this country outside Test level.
Bigger than the inter-provincial series? Yes. Bigger than the Heineken Cup? Absolutely, because until the mid-90s there was no such thing.
Back then, when club rugby was at its zenith, excitement reached fever pitch on the final day of the All-Ireland League as clubs in all four divisions kept tabs on what was going on elsewhere and how it might impact their beloved team.
If the biggest plus to come from the game going professional has been the European Cup, then the biggest negative worldwide – and it is a global fallout – has been the virtual obliteration of club rugby.
As someone who believes in the club game and its importance to Irish rugby now as much as ever, I find it sad in the extreme to witness the pseudo-passion of new-age fans for 'their' province when few if any have been inside club gates in their lives.
A seat couldn't be got for love nor money when Leinster and Munster clashed in the Pro12 at Lansdowne Road a few weeks ago, yet a week later when the Red and Blue shadow squads fronted up in Donnybrook we were back to 'spot the supporter' territory.
I doubt there were 1,000 in attendance for that British & Irish Cup quarter-final, the biggest game of the season for almost everybody involved.
Ignoring almost everything below elite level is dangerous and wrong.
Back to the All-Ireland League – my favourite competition apart from the international game and Rugby Champions Cup (takes a bit of getting used to, that).
Today at Dooradoyle and Castle Avenue the destination of the Division 1A title will be decided.
A few weeks ago when Clontarf beat Old Belvedere it appeared all over bar the shouting but back-to-back defeats at UCD and Lansdowne for 'Tarf (which speaks volumes for the competitiveness of this still-great competition) has seen the 2011 champions move into pole position ahead of today's finale.
Sadly for Garryowen – and I confess my bias here – it is the end of an era as this great, great Limerick club is set to join UL Bohs and Shannon in Division 1B, leaving Young Munster the sole Limerick representative in the top division.
It has been an amazing transformation, largely in keeping with Leinster dominance at every level of the game, when you consider that 13 of the 23 AIL titles to date have gone to Limerick, with another four to Cork (Constitution).
Indeed it was the new Millennium before a Leinster club (St Mary's) took the All-Ireland crown for the first time.
But in keeping with the turn of the tide in recent times, either Belvo or 'Tarf will make it four Leinster wins in a row, and should Mary's get the better of Con in Temple Hill then the top five clubs in the top division will all be from Dublin – an extraordinary transformation.
And, with Terenure (facing second-placed Buccaneers at Lakelands) bidding to record a remarkable clean sweep in Division 1B, six of the 10 clubs in Division 1A next season will be from the capital.
On the plus side for Limerick the four main city schools – Crescent, Castletroy, St Munchins and Ardscoil Ris – dominated Munster at Senior Cup level, with Crescent taking the title for the second year running.
Meanwhile, across the road in Dooradoyle it will be a very different scene this afternoon from the first ever AIL finale at the same venue in 1991.
I was one of the 10,000-plus fans in attendance when Con, inspired by Michael Bradley, Ralph Keyes and Len Dinneen, took the title when beating Garryowen 9-3 on their own patch.
Division 1 comprised nine clubs in that inaugural campaign, with three from Munster (Con, Garryowen and Shannon), three from Leinster (Lansdowne, St Mary's and Wanderers) and three from Ulster (Ballymena, Instonians and Malone).
Ballymena were pre-tournament favourites at 6/4, with Wanderers a close second (5/2) and only Instonians (at 25/1) were given longer odds than the Munster three. Wanderers and Malone were relegated to Division 2.
For those of a nostalgic bent the Garryowen and Con teams in what was effectively a cup final lined as follows:
Garryowen – Dan Larkin; Richie Wallace, Ken Smith, Phil Danaher (capt), Gary Quilligan; Nicky Barry, Ian Barry; Barney O'Kane, Derek Murphy, Ben Madden; Paul Hogan, Dick Costello, Willie Sexton, Mark O'Donoghue, John Mitchell.
Cork Con – Kenny Murphy; Denis O'Dowd, Charlie Murphy, Niall Murray, Brian Walsh; Ralph Keyes, Michael Bradley (capt); Philip Soden, Packy Derham, Paul McCarthy; Dom Lynch, Stephen Hayes; Len Dinneen, Olly Barrett, Victor Donnelly.
So for Paul Cunningham (on his return to his former club) and his charges, their destiny today is in their hands. They will not underestimate the Limerick Light Blues but a second ever AIL title is theirs to lose.
I confess a vested interest through three of my proteges – Jack Conan, Steve Crosbie and Josh Glynn – vying to win a first AIL medal.
Verdict: Tom Tierney and Garryowen to deliver a performance worthy of the occasion but the three lads to succeed in their mission.
Royal County staking a claim on coveted crown
Tomorrow in Tullow another of the great occasions in the rugby calendar takes place when Ashbourne (chasing a maiden title) and Kilkenny (in search of a sixth) come head to head in the Provincial Towns Cup.
For my esteemed colleague Sean Diffley, sadly no longer with us, the Provincial Towns final represented the highlight of his reporting year. He loved the community element that to this day makes this great competition unique and he loved the bonhomie that went with visiting final venues far and wide.
As ever the late, great Diffo got his priorities right. So, if you're in the vicinity and at a loose end this Easter Sunday, why not give it a go? You won't be disappointed.
Verdict: Your guess is as good as mine. Division 1B League winners Asbourne, having beaten Kilkenny twice, are on the cusp of a ground-breaking double, but more importantly this coveted Provincial Towns title.
To that end I am going with the romance of the occasion and taking the Royal County to edge it over the Cats.
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