Surprisingly, before last Sunday’s final it had been 10 years since the fiercest of Senior Cup rivals last met at this stage of the competition. That day a monstrous forward unit and a Luke Fitzgerald inspired backline eventually wore down a feisty Clongowes challenge fronted by Irish internationals Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden. Many people still recall Kearney setting off down the Lansdowne Road pitch in the dying moments with five Blackrock players dangling off him as he desperately sought to drag his team back into the game. Three tries in the last five minutes saw Blackrock win out 24-9 and the Irish fullback still ranks the defeat amongst his greatest of disappointments in the game.
But despite the setback, Kearney didn’t allow himself to wallow in defeat for too long. His maturity pointed him in the direction of his next game and the career that evidently beckoned. All in all, Clongowes and Blackrock have produced some of Ireland’s greatest players in recent years and at the RDS last Sunday it became quite clear that the future of Irish rugby remains in good hands.
In the days after tasting defeat in a fixture of this magnitude, players will often find themselves poring over all facets of their performance. For a time the end of the world seems nigh. They will think of a pass that was never passed, a tackle that slipped their grasp, an occasion that had slipped them by. But in truth there is little more that Noel McNamara, Brett Igoe, Eamon Jackman and Pat Kenny could have asked of their charges. It was a performance that had everything but the trophy in Clongowes’ hands.
The Blackrock fans will have felt short changed for their seat allocation such was the nature of this contest. For almost the entire first half, Blackrock were camped deep inside the Clongowes ‘22’ throwing everything in their armoury at a miserly defence. For 28 minutes, Clongowes somehow stood firm but the intensity of the blue and white barrage was bound to take its toll. When Hugo Keenan immediately compounded Conor Oliver’s opening score, nervous energy permeated through the Clongowes support. How many more would follow?
That Blackrock returned to the dressing room at the break with only 14 points to their name is something of a mystery. Time and time again ferocious tackling, forward passes and crooked feeds, foiled their efforts. Indeed it wasn’t until Alan Hughes lined up to have a kick at goal late in the half that Clongowes could venture into opposition territory. Hughes had certainly polished his kicking skills in the lead up to the game and his three points offered Clongowes a glimmer of hope in the face of the steep mountain that was to be confronted in the second period.
A confidence that belied
It would have been a great travesty had this fine Clongowes outfit not had the opportunity to exhibit their wares at the RDS. One must wonder whether this realisation dawned on them as they refreshed themselves during the interval, for when they returned to the fray they exuded a confidence that belied the first half we had just witnessed – they saw that the challenge was not beyond them. When Fergal Cleary drove his robust frame through several hits to score just three minutes after the restart, an electric volt replaced the anxious tension in the stands and Clongowes began to breathe. Game on.
In the majority of writings dedicated to previewing the Senior Cup Final, Blackrock were already being proclaimed as champions. With the week that was in it, it was somewhat inevitable that comparisons with the class of ’96 (featuring a little known unused substitute by the name of BOD) were being drawn. Perhaps Blackrock were fazed by such pressure, but throughout this campaign it was players such as Cleary, Stephen McVeigh and Cian O’Donoghue that merited more rightful claims to such distinction. Nevertheless only the ultimate victors could claim any legacy. So when O’Donoghue raced through, having been released by Cillian Burke, the purple momentum allowed minds to contemplate a historic triumph, for it was a score befitting of a champion side. The try was O’Donoghue’s fifth of the competition – some return for a converted prop.