AIL success matters more than tries to Clontarf record-breaker Dylan Donnellan

Clontarf’s Corinthian spirit appeals to the son of a Gaeilgeoir family, writes Gerry Thornley

Clontarf’s Dylan Donnellan celebrates scoring a try against Young Munster, his 22nd of the season. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Aside from being the decisive score, Dylan Donnellan’s close-range tap penalty and finish against Young Munster last Saturday week in a taut, tight Castle Avenue semi-final was also his 22nd try of the Energia All-Ireland League, a Division 1A record.

After his 19 tries last season, this underlines the potency of the Clontarf maul in advance of Saturday’s renewal of the “new classic” with Terenure College at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 3pm, live on TG4).

“It’s easy when you’ve got these lads in front of you doing all the hard work and making you look good,” he told The Irish Times yesterday, adding: “It’s just one string to our bow.”

He stresses: “I’d swap them all for us winning the Cup, that’s all that matters. If I never scored for the rest of my life if it means winning this one, I’d be happy.”


What makes Sunday’s final so intriguing is that last year’s entertaining decider, which Clontarf won 29-23, drew an attendance of 5,788, a record since the ground’s redevelopment.

“If it’s anything like last year it will be some spectacle. Great match, great support as well, and we’ve had a fair few tussles,” says Donnellan of this season’s meetings, in which they each beat the other 29-24 away.

“They’ll be baying for blood, I’m sure, and we’ve got the same mentality. We’re probably a little bit older, a little more experienced. We’ve got lads who’ve played in three, four, maybe even five finals. So, we’ll be trying to focus on our game and not let the occasion get to us.”

He probably speaks for all AIL players when adding: “There was a bit of chat about it going to Energia Park and Energia have been phenomenal but it’s the pinnacle of club rugby in Ireland and there’s only one place for it and that’s the Aviva.”

A sales rep with Lennox Laboratory Supplies, Donnellan hails from a Gaeilgeoir family in Galway. His twin sisters, Sarah and Amie, and cousins all play Gaelic, and Sarah won a Junior All-Ireland football title with Salthill Knocknacarra last year.

But his dad, Paul, played under-age for Connacht and with Corinthians, where Donnellan began in the minis at six., Rugby was a prime factor in him accepting his parents’ offer to attend Clongowes Wood, where he was part of a Cup win, final and semi-final on the senior team.

Ed and Bryan Byrne, and Peadar Timmins, were team-mates, so too Jordan Coughlan, whom he opposed while both played in England in 2018-19 and in last year’s final. The pair will meet again on Sunday.

Via the Connacht and then Leinster Under-18s, Donnellan played for the Irish Under-20s, including the 2014 World Cup in New Zealand, starting the third-fourth place play-off against the hosts, alongside Harrison Brewer, now the Terenure captain, among others.

“Although we lost, facing off to the haka in Eden Park was pretty special. Some memory.”

After half a season in Lansdowne’s AIL 2014-15 winning team, there was a season and a half with Biarritz in the Top 14 and ProD2, in which he scored a try on his debut in Bourgoin at 19.

“They eat, sleep and breath rugby over there. Sell-out stadiums in the ProD2 and the calibre of player is still pretty good.”

Back home, he managed his dad’s restaurant, Gemelle’s on Quay Street, while studying in UCD and playing for Corinthians. “I was always well fed. It probably explains why I’m in the font-row and not a winger, seeing as he was a scrumhalf himself, and only 5′ 6″ and about eight stone. I’ve done well considering where I came from!”

On relocating to Dublin for his last year in college, he joined Clontarf, before a season in the Championship with Yorkshire Carnegie. Donnellan is engaged to Gemma Morris, cousin of the Tipp hurler Jake, and one advantage of living in Headingley was tickets to Elland Road for his fiancé's father, a Leeds United supporter.

He likens Clontarf’s community spirit to Corinthians, and living in Malahide to Knocknacarra.,Although his ambitions for a pro career didn’t materialise, enjoys his rugby as much as ever.

“It’s a tough thing when you have a couple of pots at it and you’re told ‘no’. But with Clontarf you’ve got everything that you could want; playing at a really high standard with similar players who’ve been around those professional environments.

“You’ve got that competitive edge that I enjoy but also the craic, be it with the team or whoever is in Castle Avenue, whether they be 95 or 25.”

Winning the AIL final last year was, he says, something to tell the grandchildren about.

“We celebrated it properly and please God we’ll do it again. Some of those days, between the match and afterwards, were among the best days you could have.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times