Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Michael Noone and Brian Hayes with hands on the cup.
# AIL Final
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CLONTARF HAVE NO shortage of motivation heading into this afternoon’s All-Ireland League final against Cork Constitution at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 3pm).

The Bulls finished the regular season second only to today’s opponents, but lost both home and away encounters with the Munster club. They will also take fuel from the lingering sting of missing out on the Division 1A top four last season.

“We were a bit disappointed with ourselves last year and how we ended up,” says captain Michael Noone, though he also acknowledges that the campaign was closed with a 43-12 win over Con. A thumping victory, but too little too late to nudge them up higher than fifth.

“We were putting it down as a transition year, but we were never going to accept that. Our goal was to be here first weekend in May. Now, it’s to go on and win it.”

Michael Noone and Brian Hayes Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Michael Noone and Brian Hayes with hands on the cup. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

‘Tarf have done a fine job of hitting that sort of target while ramping up to peak performance in recent weeks. A narrow loss at home to Terenure presented them an uphill struggle, but they powered up that particular incline, going to Lansdowne and racking up an 8 – 36 win to earn home advantage for the rematch in the semi-final.

“The back-to-back wins at the end of the season was testament to how good the guys are. To win by a certain amount to bring them back to Clontarf for a home semi was testament to the club’s strengths and the guys who came back in.

“Con and ourselves always seem to end up here, there or thereabouts, for the first weekend in May.”

“We’re under no illusions. We haven’t beaten them this year in the league. That’s quite a while ago now. It’s a final, everyone’s back, it will be an interesting encounter.”

Interesting indeed. Days after Munster signalled his exit, Duncan Williams is among the Cork Con squad, with Sean French out on the wing hoping to benefit from the new-found width in Con’s gameplan.

Clontarf hasn’t been able to call on Leinster centre Conor O’Brien, but they will be more than happy to make do with his brother Sean alongside Matt D’Arcy in the centre. Connacht scrum-half Angus Lloyd partners David Joyce at half-back while Vakh Abdaladze has been given leave from Leinster to take up a spot among the replacements.

It’s a necessary headache for coaches the length and breadth of the AIL’s upper reaches. Up-and-coming professional are of course a worthwhile addition to their squads, but they come with challenges too. Tactically, they must be bedded into a system with minimal preparation time after spending at least half a week with their province. Emotionally, there are devoted clubmen who may have to miss out and make way for an elite talent.

Sean O'Brien runs in a try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sean O'Brien storms away against Lansdowne. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“There will always be disappointed players if they are deselected for whatever reason,” says Clontarf head coach Andy Wood, “we are lucky that the guys who have come in have generally played a season or two more or less before they have gone on to make their mark.

“We have provided a little pathway or a shop window for them. So when that time comes around in whatever, the second or third season, they are not strangers. We are not just parachuting them in.

“The lads know them. They are around on a Thursday, they will pop in on a Tuesday to say ‘hello’ or they will be at games watching and supporting.

“So it’s not as if they are strangers to it but it is not easy on players who have played a number of games in-a-row and then ‘X’ is available.

“They understand I guess, but no one ever likes it on a personal level. By and large, lads understand that if a player of quality is coming in for the right reasons, it is for the betterment of the team or the perceived betterment of the team.

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“Again, we just roll up our sleeves and get on with it.”

“The ambition of our players, whether we are officially tacked on to the professional game or not, there are still players who are playing to be the best of their ability in the AIL, who we hope would transition in (to Leinster).

“You certainly want to be speaking to the coaches who would directly influence these players’ careers.

“There is always a good relationship with Leo (Cullen) and Peter Smyth in the Academy as well. It wouldn’t be every week but there are certainly conversations now and again.”

Sean French scores the first try of the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO French scores against Trinity in the semi-final Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

For Cork Con, Sean French is a stand-out young talent and the club don’t expect to see much more of the U20 Grand Slam-winner after this season. Between his power on the wing and the influence of Shane Daly and Alex McHenry through centre, Con have impressed this season by veering away from the style which brought them to three straight finals, expanding their attacking threat across the breadth of the field to reach a fourth.

“It’s good to see them expressing themselves to a degree, being able to play and back themselves, and I think being prepared to make a mistake too,” says Con coach Paul Barr.

“I would have worked with Sean and Shane in school (PBC), and then Alex with Con, and they are really dedicated young players with I think an awful lot of ability, and it’s fantastic.”

“We have a funny dynamic in that we have an older group of players who would have played in those two finals against Clontarf and last year against Lansdowne, and we have a younger group of players who have never played in any final. I think that it’s a nice mix, and those young players have a fearlessness when playing for the club.”

Youth, experience, nous and fearlessness. It’s set to be a humdinger on the big stage down Lansdowne Road.

CLONTARF (Probable): Jack Power; Michael Courtney, Sean O’Brien, Matt D’Arcy, Cian O’Donoghue; David Joyce, Angus Lloyd; Ivan Soroka, Paddy Finlay, Royce Burke-Flynn, Cormac Daly, Ben Reilly, Tony Ryan, Adrian D’Arcy, Michael Noone (capt).

Replacements: Declan Adamson, Tom Ryan, Vakh Abdaladze, Andrew Feeney, Conor Kelly, Mick McGrath, Brian Deeny.

CORK CONSTITUTION (Probable): Liam O’Connell, Sean French, Shane Daly, Niall Kenneally (capt), Rob Jermyn, Aidan Moynihan, Jason Higgins: Gavin Duffy, Vincent O’Brien, Dylan Murphy, Brian Hayes, Evan Mintern, Joe McSwiney, Kevin Sheahan, Luke Cahill

Replacements: Patrick Casey, Brendan Quinlan, James Murphy, Alex McHenry, Ross O’Neill, Duncan Williams, Jonathan Wren.

Referee: Jonny Erskine (IRFU)

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