Despite Leinster again being in action, the highlight of another full programme of club action across the country on Saturday is expected to draw a crowd of 2,000-3,000 at Lakelands Park.
Terenure College, first in Division 1A, host the reigning champions Clontarf, currently third, in a repeat of last season’s final. As it is being streamed live by The Club Scene podcast and the IRFU, the kick-off has been put back to 3pm.
This is the new ‘clásico’ of the AIL season after drawing a record crowd of around 6,000 for last May’s final, when Clontarf claimed a third title and denied Terenure a breakthrough first with an absorbing 29-23 win.
Terenure had gatecrashed the big three by reaching the final, and have brought the motivation customary for first-time losing finalists into the new season.
Having been so close, we really didn’t want to leave any stone unturned and we’ve been lucky in that talent has come in
“I do think ‘Tarf, over the course of the season, and in the final, deserved to be champions,” admits Terenure’s head coach Sean Skehan, who also feared his team might break up, in part due to post-pandemic travel plans amongst the squad.
“But having been so close, we really didn’t want to leave any stone unturned and we’ve been lucky in that talent has come in, but the players were very keen to come back after summer breaks.”
Skehan is also coaching the Terenure College schools senior Cup team. There, he also teaches geography and business, since relocating to Dublin with his wife Aislinn after his time with Glenstal when they won their breakthrough Munster schools cup success in 2018. That followed a losing final the year before.
“Having been so close to the summit, I think you learn a lot. To be fair to Clontarf, they have been in so many AIL finals they probably managed the final better as a club. We sort of lost the run of ourselves,” he says.
“It was similar in Glenstal Abbey. We got to the final in 2017, for the first time since 1970, and the school kind of lost its mind in the lead-up to the final because it was just such a big thing. When we got back to the final the next year, we won it, but I think we as a team, both coaching staff and players, were more mature.”
Helped by playing the bottom four and a rebuilding Cork Con side, Terenure won their first six games by an average winning margin of almost 30 points.
A tough mid-season schedule began with a 29-24 win away to Clontarf and a double over a strong Trinity team, especially when they their Irish Under-20 and Leinster players, and in between Terenure avenged their sole defeat so far against Young Munster.
While Saturday’s crunch game is the first of a seven-game run-in to the play-offs, Skehan accepts that virtually all games between themselves, Clontarf, Trinity, Young Munster and latterly Cork Con have tended to be close encounters.
Most of the key men in last season’s campaign remained, not least the Clontarf-reared former Leinster, Munster, Nottingham and Leicester backrower Jordan Coughlan, and the hard-carrying, left-footed former Munster centre Peter Sylvester.
“How he never made it as a professional I’ll never know,” says Skehan, “particularly in Munster, where they haven’t been blessed with midfield players. He is as good as I’ve seen in the domestic game, and always looks a good cut above the domestic game.”
Clontarf will be very direct, will try to bring huge emotional intensity and they’ll want to put manners on us
The Leinster trio of Marcus Hannon, John McKee and Charlie Ryan also joined, but Ryan sadly retired recently with a knee injury, while not for the first time Hannon and McKee are involved with their province this Saturday.
With last season’s out-half, Cathal Marsh, also having injury issues this season, Skehan admits thet have been blessed that the former Malone and one-time Ulster academy out-half Callum Smith joined after moving to Dublin as he has friends in the club.
Terenure are more suited to hard and dry pitches but, helped by Smith’s long kicking game and retaining a potent maul, they have become better equipped for the midwinter slogs on wet pitches against bigger packs.
Victory on Saturday will leave Terenure favourites to secure a home semi-final, and they have been unbeaten at Lakelands Park since Clontarf won there 16 months ago.
Nonetheless, Skehan knows that Terenure are catching Clontarf on the rebound from last week’s surprise 24-12 defeat at Castle Avenue by an admittedly improving Cork Con.
“They’re incredibly physical, very confrontational, really good pack, really good maul, scrum, line-out, breakdown,” he says. “I’d imagine they’ll be very direct, will try to bring huge emotional intensity and they’ll want to put manners on us, which I can understand. I’d be the same if I was on their side.
“For us, it’s: can we match them physically head on, and deal with that challenge? And then can we play our style of game and move them around the park a bit? It’ll be a one-score game. It’s going to be tight.”