'They can look back with pride... their effort wasn't null and void'

Defending champions Cork Con ended an unbeaten season with 14 wins from 14 in the AIL.

THE REST OF the 2019/20 Irish domestic campaign has been cancelled, meaning Cork Con won’t get a shot at securing the two trophies they were still eyeing up, but they can at least reflect on an unbeaten season.

With 14 wins from 14 games in Division 1A of the Energia All-Ireland league, the Cork club were 12 points clear at the peak of Irish amateur rugby and favourites to retain their title even if the play-offs are always tricky to navigate.

Brian Hickey’s side were also due to face Lansdowne in the final of the Bateman Cup in April, having already won the Cork Charity Cup and Munster Senior Cup earlier this season.

the-cork-constitution-team-celebrate-with-the-trophy Con celebrate their Munster Senior Cup success in December. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The IRFU’s sudden cancellation of the season caught Con off guard two weeks ago but while they would have loved the chance to finish out the season at some stage in the future, Hickey acknowledges that there are more pressing matters at play.

“Whatever about the professional game, you can see how hard it would be for the amateur game with people’s jobs and everything,” said the Cork Con head coach. “Sport is probably the last thing that will return to normality, so it was understandable that way but it didn’t ease the shock of it.

“It would have been nice to see if we could have maintained the unbeaten run. We’ll never find out now but there are more important issues at stake.”

Despite not having the chance to achieve Con’s first-ever back-to-back AIL titles, Hickey underlines his hope that the club’s players acknowledge what they achieved in 2019/20.

“I think they can look back with pride on it and I’m hoping that in time they will.

“The upsetting thing is that they have no tangible reward for it, they were hoping to retain the trophy and go back-to-back, but then there’s no guarantee with play-offs and the standard of opposition.

“That’s the shame of it. I think it’s inevitable that we were going to lose at some stage but it would have taken a very good team to beat us the way we were playing this year.”

cork-constitution-players-celebrate-after-the-game Con won Division 1A of the AIL last season. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Many clubs around Ireland will have financial challenges in the coming months, while Con are like everyone else in facing into a six-month stretch without any rugby at all – the hope being that the 2020/21 season can kick off in September as planned.

The clocks going back and bringing about brighter evenings will make the absence of training and gym sessions all the more keenly felt, with Hickey stressing just how much his players and others around the country put into the domestic game.

“The effort these guys put in as amateurs is incredible and that’s the tough side of it. The other side is that you find out how much you miss it.

“When you look at the effort the players put in, to be told the season is null and void, that’s a tough pill to swallow. Certainly, their effort wasn’t null and void, as far as I’m concerned.”

Whatever about the cancelled season, there is little doubt that Cork Con continue to go from strength to strength.

Formerly an assistant coach with Munster, Hickey is a long-time servant of Con and very modest in his assessment of what the Temple Hill club is getting right. He speaks of “a work ethic and culture that has been built up over years” and stresses that he’s “lucky to have an exceptional group of 30 to 35 players.”

He praises manager Kenny Murphy for being “the glue that has kept the club going for the last 10 or 12 years,” while also highlighting the work of assistant coaches such as ex-Munster out-half Johnny Holland, Paul McCarthy, and Paul Barr in recent years.

brian-hickey Cork Con boss Brian Hickey. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“We try to challenge the players,” says Hickey. “We realised that we maybe needed to broaden our horizons on the attack front in the last couple of seasons, we said the skill levels and fitness levels would hopefully improve to play that kind of game. To a man, the players bought into that.”

Centre Niall Kenneally has been leading the 1st XV for four years now and Hickey says he’s “an outstanding captain, although I don’t want to build up his ego any more! He has been fantastic for us and he very much leads by example.”

With exciting players like Munster academy men Alex McHenry, Jonathan Wren, and Sean French featuring in what “has become a younger players’ league,” Hickey also praises more experienced men like former Munster halfbacks Duncan Williams and Gerry Hurley

“It’s been good for us to have Duncan but it’s also been important for Duncan to have Con because he’s at a stage where he could have given up but he has so much to offer.

“He brings on our younger players, mentoring the scrum-halves. I don’t know if he’d have ever seen himself going into coaching but this gives him an opportunity while still playing to do that.

gerry-hurley-2512020 35-year-old Gerry Hurley offers experience. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“I think Gerry will be a coach and I would have said that when he was 19 or 20. When I was coaching with Munster, even back then when he was in the academy, he was a deep thinker on the game. I remember having very long chats with him about rugby.

“I find it hard to believe that he has been playing this length of time. He was our captain six or seven years ago too. The example people like himself give to the younger players, it matters.

“He was always going to progress into coaching but I hope there’s more rugby left in himself and Duncan as well.”

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