During the dark days of the pandemic, rugby’s professional tier kept the show on the road, albeit with echoey stadia. But they were altogether grimmer times for the club game. There was the odd smattering of friendlies when restrictions were marginally eased, but between Corinthians beating Sligo 24-8 on March 7th, 2020 and Old Belvedere’s 16-13 win over Naas on October 1st, 2021, there wasn’t an AIL ball kicked in anger in the intervening year and seven months.
Days like last Saturday would have seemed fantastical. Big crowds attended make-or-break semi-finals and relegation first-leg playoffs at 15 venues involving 30 clubs in all five divisions throughout the country. At Castle Avenue and Lakelands Park the vast majority in crowds of 2,500 celebrated their sides reaching Sunday’s Energia All-Ireland League final at the Aviva Stadium.
"You get days like this and that's what the club game is all about. It's important for everyone in the parish," said the Clontarf head coach Andy Wood pitchside after their 29-13 win over Cork Constitution.
Meanwhile, over in Lakelands Park, Terenure had an estimated 480 people at their pre-match lunch before last Saturday’s 20-18 win over Lansdowne. The club dinner was held there last Thursday and there’s a “Tigers Blitz” on Sunday for 19 special needs teams.
Allowing for seasons without playoffs, Terenure will also be the first club outside of Clontarf, Cork Con or Lansdowne to play in the final since 2011.
"It's a huge thing for us to be in the final," admits the Terenure director of rugby Ian Morgan.
That two clubs who are immersed in their communities have reached the final should make for a good day out. “I know it can be echoey in the Aviva but I think it will be noisy, and it’s the international stadium and the lads love playing there,” said Wood.
Terenure came through the pandemic as strong as, if not stronger than, ever. First off, they did their best to keep the lights on. Harrison Brewer, their captain, opened his coffee truck at Lakelands Park and they also opened a pizza shack.
They hosted outdoor gatherings for each of the three Lions Tests in South Africa, although Morgan quips: “They should have cancelled the third Test because what we’d seen before was actually cruelty to rugby.
“But for the last one we played Connemara All Blacks in a friendly and they all stayed. It was in the car park, we got good weather. We had picnic tables all summer as well as the coffee and pizza trucks, so people called in all the time.”
On the pitch, Terenure have actually gained a sixth adult team since the pandemic. They reinvented the Collegians, the club’s original name, to accommodate graduates of their under-20s in the original all-white strip, while entering a fifths team in a Friday night league.
“For guys in their 30s with kids, they can train on a Wednesday and play every Friday,” says Morgan. “That team won the league and lost to Coolmine in the Cup. We had a team in Division 6 as well and our sixths are in Division 8. It’s hard to put out six teams every week but there’s a lot of good guys doing a lot of work.”
Admittedly, not every club has the same story to tell as Terenure and Clontarf. There’s been a post-pandemic increase in girls’ and women’s players, while minis and the union’s “Give it a Try” campaign generated a huge response, but there’s been an inevitable fall-off in male adult participants, of maybe 900-1,000.
“It’s not all good, and a bit of volunteer fatigue as well,” admits Colin McEntee, the IRFU director of rugby development. “A lot of them would be junior players. They’re challenges, but they are challenges that all team sports are experiencing, be it the GAA and FAI here or our counterparts across the water. We’re all in the same boat.”
The union ran seminars to retain meaningful connections, but, as McEntee acknowledges: “The clubs themselves, through volunteer groups, showed incredible resilience. Even getting through this season wasn’t Covid-free.”
Indeed, Sunday’s final will be the 475th AIL match of the season, and all but eight were resolved on the pitch.
“Would you have taken this two years ago? You’d probably have taken the hand off,” says McEntee, also citing record crowds at Junior Cup games and “a super women’s AIL final”.
In the early stages of the pandemic, McEntee hoped all of the 222 clubs in Ireland, senior and junior, could somehow survive. They did, and two new clubs were formed: the Cork Hellhounds, an LGBT-inclusive rugby club based in Cork, and Lisdoonvarna RFC in Clare.
“There’s a perception that it [the club game] is dead on the vine but we had 4.2 million hits on video views on the [IRFU] website from the club game. It shows that there is a product and people are engaged in it. I think Covid has probably reconnected many clubs to their communities.”
All-Ireland League, Saturday (all 2.30pm)
Division 1A relegation play-off, second leg: Ballynahinch (21) v UCC (17), Ballymacarn Park
UCC did enough to keep the tie alive in last week's first leg tie at the Mardyke, but Ballynahinch look well placed to retain Ulster's sole top-flight status.
Division 1B promotion final: Shannon v Naas, Coonagh
Shannon, the nine-times champions, stand on the brink of a return to the top flight after a three-year absence, after toppling Highfield away last week and so, despite finishing third, now host a Naas side whose thrilling 37-36 win away to table-topping Old Wesley demonstrates they will swing from the hip again.
Division 1B relegation play-off second leg: Banbridge (25) v Navan (17), Rifle Park
A late try by Grand Slam Under-20 centre Ben Carson earned Banbridge a two-score lead from the first leg, their sixth win in 10 games, including a 29-15 home win last month over Navan, who have lost 12 of their last 13.
Division 2A promotion final: Queen's University v Buccaneers, Dub Lane
The students 82-14 mauling of Ballymena looked like a statement of intent, taking their haul of points in 19 games to 754, and they will be expected to confirm their dominance of 2A over Buccs, whom they beat 32-15 at home last December and 40-8 away in January.
Division 2A relegation play-off, second leg: Nenagh Ormond (17) v Rainey Old Boys (17), New Ormond Park
Nenagh Ormond look favoured to preserve their 2A status given last week's draw against Ian McKinley's side and their home form this season, which included a 38-0 win over Rainey last February.
Verdict: Nenagh Ormond.
Division 2B promotion final: Greystones v Blackrock College, Dr Hickey Park
The most closely fought division, and Blackrock beat Greystones in Stradbrook 21-17 last February. But last week's semi-final victory over Corinthians was a ninth in 10 home games for Greystones, including a 48-19 win over Saturday's opponents last November.
Division 2B relegation playoff, second leg: Ballina (19) v Galwegians (34), Heffernan Park
With three relegations since the top flight in 2015-16, avoiding the drop again would be a timely boost for Galwegians in their centenary year. And although both previous meetings were close, they take a healthy lead to Mayo.
Division 2C promotion final: Enniscorthy v Skerries, Alcast Park
Both came through tough home wins last week against Tullamore and Bangor, and Enniscorthy will be grateful for home advantage given their 27-15 win over Skerries in Alcast Park in February, whereas they lost 20-14 on the Holmpatrick all-weather pitch in November.
Division 2 C relegation playoff, second leg: City of Derry (17) v Clonmel (33), Judge's Road
Ian Keatley's Clonmel side take a healthy lead to Derry, where they lost 9-6 in November, as these two clubs seek to preserve their senior status, with Instonians returning from the junior ranks.
Division 1A final: Clontarf v Terenure College, Aviva Stadium, 3.0
The AIL has the final it deserves, the top two in the final Division 1A table and the two most in-form sides in the country.
Despite this being widely hailed as the most competitive and entertaining top flight in years, Clontarf’s commanding semi-final victory over Cork Con last Saturday in Castle Avenue was their 18th in 19 games this season.
Their only blemish was a home defeat under Friday night lights by Lansdowne in November, which they avenged under the Aviva back-pitch lights in February as part of the 14-match winning run which has taken them to the final.
As they showed against Con, if in the opposition 22 they tend not to come away without scoring – with hooker Dylan Donnellan’s 18th try of the campaign testimony to the potency of their lineout maul.
But their others came from a strong finish by centre Michael Courtney, as well as a couple wide out from winger Cian O'Donoghue, along with some neat footwork by fullback Tadhg Bird. Their defence also withstood plenty that Con threw at them, not least when Jack Crowley was introduced.
For their part, Terenure lost three of their first four, culminating in a 29-14 defeat at home by Tarf in October, but have won 14 of their subsequent 15 games – the only exception being a 12-11 defeat in Clontarf in early March which could have gone either way.
While Clontarf were coping without five players involved in Leinster's South African safari, Terenure have no contracted players, albeit former pros such as Jordan Coughlan and Cathal Marsh are integral to their success, as is captain Harrison Brewer, with winger Craig Adams scoring 14 tries.
Whereas Terenure will be contesting their first final, Clontarf will be in their seventh. In addition to winning the AIL title in 2013-14 and finishing runners-up on two other occasions when there were no playoffs, Clontarf beat Cork Con in the 2016 decider, but have lost five other finals.