Stiff competition makes for top-class team of the year. It's that time of the year again, time to dole out the bouquets in the shape of the AIB/Irish Times Division One team of the season.
This year, the fourth, we have enlisted the help of the AIB All-Ireland League Division One coaches, who nominated three of their own players and the best three from opposing sides. The Irish Times quartet of rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley, John O'Sullivan, Johnny Watterson and Gavin Cummiskey also had an input into the final selection.
The team will be honoured with an awards ceremony next month at which each player will receive a commemorative trophy.
It's no surprise to see Cork Constitution top of the AIB All-Ireland League at the season's end. In a year that saw many teams blighted by call-ups to the provincial stage, Constitution had the resources to remain ultra-competitive. Rarely did they look to use their Munster contingent so it never became an issue. They led practically from start to finish.
It was more a case of the sum of their collective parts that got them to the top and they have just two players on our selection. Nevertheless their players contested almost every area of the team. Ultan O'Callaghan is recognised for his leadership qualities and for being the nub of a dominant pack.
Shannon also coped well despite the loss of several quality players to the higher levels. Like Constitution, they have excellent feeder systems. In this regard, Clontarf and St Mary's were not so fortunate.
John Lacey takes the full-back slot, the third time he has been honoured. Strong running and reliability made him a unanimous choice.
The boot of Tom Cregan earns him the right-wing slot. A pair of excellent drop goals that saw off Blackrock and Buccaneers showed his class. The rest of his game also continued to improve. The league's joint top try scorer to date, 22-year-old Willem Slabbert, is named on the other wing. The slick running Free State native sees off the challenge of Cork's Tomás O'Leary and Maurice Logue of Carlow.
Conrad O'Sullivan just edges out French team-mate Jean-Vincent Igarza for the outside centre berth after some scintillating displays. Carlow's Michael Swetman was the overwhelming choice at inside centre. Time and again he shredded opposition defences. Brian Tuohy (Shannon) was another standout in the centre.
The most difficult position to select was outhalf. It's a sign of the times in Irish rugby that no Division One coach nominated a number 10. The IRFU clearly have a major problem on their hands regarding the pivotal position.
Emmett Farrell showed glimpses of his class but was hampered by injury, eventually retiring to his new role as Leinster's video analyst. The league's all-time top points scorer, John O'Mahony, provided his usual kicking ratio but we plumped for the silky skills of Ballymena's Ian Humphreys.
Scrumhalf was a less taxing decision as all bar two coaches mentioned Reece Spee of Belfast Harlequins. The slick passing Kiwi, now a naturalised Irishman, makes it two representatives for Harlequins. The league's outstanding back, Spee must now be in line for a greater role in the Ulster set-up next season. Con scrumhalf Pat McCarthy and Buccaneers' Chris Keane also had notable seasons.
Loosehead prop is Martin Cahill, one of the key components in the powerful Buccaneers pack. He fends off the versatile Frankie Roche for the number one jersey. He is joined in the front row by David Blaney of UCD and David Clare of St Mary's.
Hooker was the most contested spot on the pitch with provincial reserves like Jerry Flannery (Shannon), Nigel Brady (Dungannon) and Rory Best (Belfast Harlequins) providing stiff competition. Although Blaney only played half the league matches his performances in the loose and in the game's technical aspects were a cut above the rest. With Shane Byrne on World Cup and Six Nations duty Blaney was rewarded with a prolonged run with Leinster, fending off of younger brother Brian.
Clare takes the tight-head spot for after some solid scrummaging and as the only St Mary's forward with the ability to break the gain-line in a season to forget for Brent Pope and co. The dearth of props in Ireland continues but Roche (Shannon) and Brian Young (Ballymena) excelled at league level. Also, old heads like John O'Driscoll (Cork Constitution) and Angus McKeen (Lansdowne) provided some hard-nosed cameos.
In the secondrow Tom Hayes's contribution to Shannon's cause had to be recognised - Alan Gaffney has duly followed suit with the Bruff man playing a significant role in the Celtic League. Blackrock second row David Gannon was a key man for both club and the Irish Under-21s, which he also captained. His international partner Con's Shane O'Connor pushed him hard.
Ultan O'Callaghan is joined in the backrow by Lansdowne's up and coming openside Niall Ronan and Buccaneers powerhouse David Kelly. Although Lansdowne struggled throughout the year, Ronan could quiet easily have been joined by club-mate Jim O'Donovan but Ronan just gets the nod for the scavenging skills that will probably see him promoted to the provincial set-up from next season. Number eight Kelly was several coaches' player of the season.
The Buccaneers' back row of Gavin Schoeman and Eoin Brennan also deserve a mention, as do Blackrock's Dave Dillon, Colm McMahon (Shannon) and Ciarán Potts (St Mary's).
AIB/IRISH TIMES TEAM OF THE SEASON
T Cregan C O'Sullivan M Swetman W Slabbert
(Shannon) (Constitution) (Co Carlow) (B/Harlequins)
I Humphreys R Spee
(Ballymena) (Belfast Harlequins)
M Cahill D Blaney D Clare
(Buccaneers) (UCD) (St Mary's)
D Gannon T Hayes
U O'Callaghan N Ronan D Kelly
( Constitution) (Lansdowne) (Buccaneers)