Blackrock captain Michelle Claffey and Railway Union captain Niamh Byrne. Ben Brady/INPHO
Super Saturday

Blackrock College and Railway Union braced for AIL title showdown

The All-Ireland League Women’s season culminates tomorrow with three TG4-televised play-off matches at Energia Park.

Women’s Division Final

Blackrock College (1st, Top 4) v Railway Union (2nd, Top 4), Energia Park, 7.30pm

The headline act on Energia All-Ireland League Women’s ‘Super Saturday’ is a south Dublin derby between Blackrock College and Railway Union. Railway were the last champions, in 2019, and are seeking their second league title.

Blackrock, who led the way in the Top Four series, have reached this stage for the first time since 2014/15. They lost that season’s decider to Old Belvedere but were previously league winners on four occasions between 1992 and 1997, and also in 2008.

For the climax of his first AIL campaign at the club, ‘Rock head coach Ben Martin restores the in-form Natasja Behan to full-back, and Katie Fitzhenry joins captain Michelle Claffey in a formidable midfield combination.

Blackrock, who beat an understrength Railway side 39-7 last week, have Jackie Shiels and Aoibheann Reilly reinstalled at half-back, with the latter’s Ireland Sevens colleague, Emily Lane, ready to be sprung from the bench.

Emma Hooban and promising young flankers Aoife Wafer and Maeve Óg O’Leary are the three changes in the pack for Martin’s ambitious squad. Ireland ace Dorothy Wall reverts to the second row.

Claffey, who has starred with a 12-try haul so far, commented: “It’s a huge milestone for the club, our first AIL final since 2014. This hasn’t come around by chance, there is so much work that has gone into getting us here.

“The work of our coaches and management has been immense. Ben has led the coaching staff, supported by David Gannon, Philip Doyle and Sam Casey. Jen Moore is vital for the team and ensured everything is just right for every game.

“We are incredibly excited at the prospect of the final, it’s a very proud moment for me to captain this side which is full of talent. We just need to put it all out on the pitch as a performance on Saturday.”

Blackrock won their last two league clashes with Railway, although the Sandymount outfit were triumphant when they met at the start of the season – 25-11 – and also won an All-Ireland Cup encounter last month.

Having rested a number of frontline players last week, Railway director of rugby and head coach John Cronin makes 10 personnel changes for the final, including ageless prop Lindsay Peat who recently retired from international rugby.

Fellow front rowers Chloe Blackmore and Katie O’Dywer are the only starting forwards retained, while the back row unit of Emma Murphy, Claire Boles and Deirdre Roberts has a dynamic look to them.

Nikki Caughey, the division’s leading scorer (103 points), has Ailsa Hughes alongside her at half-back, while Ireland Sevens pair Eve Higgins and Katie Heffernan combine in midfield, meaning a move to the wing for captain Niamh Byrne.

eve-higgins Ireland international Eve Higgins starts for Railway Union. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

With the nine-try Aoife Doyle on the opposite wing, Byrne is hoping the Railway attack can fire on all cylinders, saying: “We were undefeated until we lost to ‘Rock this side of Christmas, so that game really refocused us.

“It taught us to tighten up our discipline and refocus. We’re really excited for the final now, really ready to give it our all in front of hopefully a great crowd at Energia Park and also on TV. Nervous but excited.

“Our approach, as a leadership group, is to keep things consistent, stick to what works for us and what we know. Minor tweaks but we’ve made minor tweaks for every game this side of Christmas recently.”

International star Higgins added: “It’s great for women’s rugby in Ireland (having the finals televised). It’s great exposure that’s needed and I think it’s going to be the most competitive ever women’s AIL game.

“It’ll be great to have the crowd down, first off, but also to have family and supporters that can’t come down to switch on their TVs and watch us live.”

3rd-4th Place Play-Off

UL Bohemians (3rd, Conference) v Old Belvedere (4th, Conference), Energia Park, 2pm

With a noticeably strengthened starting XV, things finally clicked for Old Belvedere last week as they won for the first time in eight rounds. It is the same opposition on the same all-weather surface tomorrow.

UL Bohemians’ title challenge faltered in the last few rounds, with a frustrating three defeats in a row, including two at home. Nicole Cronin’s injury-enforced absence was keenly felt, but she is fit for bench duty for this play-off.

nicole-cronin-kicks-a-conversion Nicole Cronin is fit enough to be named on the bench for UL Bohs. Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO / INPHO

Following that 22-12 loss to ‘Belvo, Bohs boss Niamh Briggs brings Kerry youngster Muirne Wall back in at scrum half. Their Chloe Pearse-led pack will want a much-improved collective performance to close out the campaign.

Fresh from Ireland Sevens duty, 18-year-old flanker Erin King impressed on both sides of the ball against UL, with another international player, Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird, also carrying well to take the game to the Red Robins.

Brittany Hogan’s absence tomorrow is negated by Elaine Anthony’s return to Belvedere’s second row, with captain Jenny Murphy part of an unchanged back-line. They also have Jemma Farrell and Jennie Finlay to call on off the bench.

Third place was obviously not part of either club’s goals for the season, but it could be a nice momentum builder, particularly for Bohs who are in Energia All-Ireland Cup semi-final action against Wicklow next week.

Women’s Conference Final

Suttonians (1st, Conference) v Galwegians (2nd, Conference), Energia Park, 4.45pm

Another cliffhanger surely awaits between Suttonians and Galwegians, with the clubs’ last three meetings decided by a single try on each occasion. Accumulating five Conference wins, Sutts are unbeaten in 2022.

Stephen Costelloe’s charges topped the table courtesy of last month’s 26-19 victory at home to Galwegians, who have since bounced back with barnstorming successes against Malone and Ballincollig, scoring 14 tries in the process.

Mairéad Coyne, a real attacking force for ‘Wegians from full-back, has brought her experience as a former Ireland international to the captaincy role, standing in for the injured Mary Healy.

mairead-coyne-and-lauren-fahey Galwegians’ Mairéad Coyne. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Coyne is on a run of six tries in three games, the Blue Belles’ midfield duo of Megan Walsh and Orla Dixon also regularly feature on the scoresheet, and Nicole Fowley, another Ireland-capped player, steers the ship from out-half.

Fiona Scally’s return to the second row sees Elizabeth McNicholas revert to the loosehead prop position, while talented 20-year-old Grace Browne Moran shifts to the blindside flanker berth for Jarrad Butler’s charges.

Becoming the first club to lift the Conference trophy is the prize on offer in Donnybrook, the same venue where Suttonians earned promotion to the All-Ireland League back in April 2019.

With five tries in two appearances, Costelloe has redeployed Ireland Sevens starlet Kate Farrell McCabe to full-back, and her sister, captain Lauren, is rejoined by Nicole Carroll at half-back.

Sutts’ top try scorers Emily McKeown and Mary Healy, with eight each, will look to make an impact with ball in hand, the latter a devastatingly powerful runner. There are also starts up front for Katie Grant Duggan and Carrie O’Keeffe.

7th-8th Place Play-Off

Ballincollig (3rd, Conference) v Wicklow (4th, Conference), Tanner Park, 2.30pm

Fiona Hayes’ Ballincollig have bottled up the hurt of last week’s heavy defeat to Galwegians, with the carrot of a seventh place finish in their debut All-Ireland League season there for the taking.

Fellow first-timers Wicklow stand in their way, buoyed by a strong finish to their Conference campaign – including two away wins – and the impact of recent club debutant, Ireland Sevens captain Lucy Mulhall.

After one win apiece at Ashtown Lane, this is Ballincollig’s first time to host Wicklow at Tanner Park. One of the most intriguing individual battles could be between opposing wingers Heather Kennedy and Sarah Gleeson, who have nine tries between them.

9th-10th Place Play-Off

Cooke (5th, Conference) v Malone (6th, Conference), Shaw’s Bridge, 5pm

Cooke have beaten Malone twice already this season and go in as favourites for this season finale, after running in five tries last week away to their Belfast rivals.

That 31-3 bonus point win ended a four-match losing run and the Aishling O’Connell-captained Cookies are determined to see out Daniel Allen’s coaching reign on a high, with the club seeking a new coach for next year.

Converting possession into points will be paramount for Jamie McMullan’s Malone side, with Ella Durkan and skipper Peita McAlister in key play-making roles. But the Cooke forwards may prove too strong again.

Gavan Casey is joined by Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella to look ahead to Italy, chat about the provinces’ latest signings, and remember ‘Inga the Winga’.

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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