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Historic Energia All-Ireland League double header will showcase the best talent in Irish club rugby
APRIL 22 2024
Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
The biggest weekend in Irish club rugby is upon us once again, as the Energia All-Ireland League (AIL) finals take centre stage at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The sense of occasion will be further heightened by the fact that for the first time ever, the eagerly-anticipated Energia AIL men’s and women’s finals will be held as a double header. For the four teams involved, from the men’s defending champions Terenure College and their challengers Cork Constitution, to women’s rivals UL Bohemian and Railway Union doing battle once again, this promises to be a brilliant showcase of the best talent in the domestic scene, fittingly at the home of Irish rugby.

Ireland will hope to get the weekend off to a positive start on Saturday, when they take on Scotland in their final Women’s Six Nations game at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Fresh after a heavy defeat to an outstanding England team at Twickenham, Ireland must quickly pick themselves up and go again, with a chance to secure World Cup qualification on the line.The stakes are extremely high for Scott Bemand’s side, just as they are for the four Energia AIL teams, for whom a shot at history beckons in front of what is expected to be another strong crowd at the Aviva Stadium, while those who cannot attend will be able to watch both games live on TG4.

Terenure have been at the forefront of the Energia AIL’s rebirth in recent years, with their scintillating performances on the pitch, matched by that of the superb work that the club continues to do off it.
Lakelands has quickly become the place to be on a Saturday afternoon, with large crowds getting behind their team, who play an exciting brand of rugby under Sean Skehan.

Then there is Terenure’s social media genius, whose amazing team announcement videos are genuinely one of the highlights of the rugby week. The club deserves enormous credit for tapping into the younger demographic, which is certainly helped by having much stronger ties to the local school. ‘Nure finished top of the regular season table, pipping Cork Con by a single point, which means that their final clash could not be more delicately poised.

Skehan’s side have handled the pressure of being first-time champions well, and their challenge is to now back that up by winning a 14th consecutive game, which would see them become the first club to retain the trophy since Shannon in the mid-2000s. Last year’s hero Caolan Dooley has left the club to play rugby in America, but in Aran Egan, Terenure have another nerveless kicker, whose last-gasp penalty in last weekend’s enthralling 31-28 semi-final win over Dublin neighbours Lansdowne kept their title dream alive.

As ever, captain Harrison Brewer is central to everything good about Terenure, who have other punchy forwards like Jordan Coghlan and Luke Clohessy in their ranks, as well as quality backs such as Conor Phillips and Adam La Grue. However, ‘Nure do not need reminding that Cork Con are waiting in the long grass, more than happy to go into Sunday’s decider as underdogs.

Con haven’t been crowned champions since 2019, but their sights are firmly set on winning their seventh title, which would bring them to within two of Shannon’s all-time record (nine). Like Terenure, Con are an exciting team to watch, and under former Munster out-half Jonny Holland’s watch, they are well set for a crack at the champions. Holland’s side will go into the final full of confidence having beaten last season’s runners-up Clontarf 40-34 at a packed Temple Hill.

Veteran centre Niall Kenneally continues to be a talismanic figure for Con, who have refreshed their team in recent years, with the likes of out-half James Taylor, who kicked 17 points last weekend, lightning-quick winger Matthew Bowen, who has scored 14 tries this season, and hooker Billy Scannell, younger brother of Munster duo Niall and Rory, all adding a fresh dynamic. It is set to be a pulsating final, and while, as champions, Terenure are the team to beat, Cork Con are certainly capable of dethroning the champions. There is a different dynamic in the women’s decider, as last year’s winners Blackrock will not have a chance to defend their crown. Instead, UL Bohemian and Railway Union go head-to-head at 1.45pm before the men’s final (4.0pm).

Railway were denied three-in-a-row by Blackrock last season, which will add fuel to the fire of Stephen Costelloe’s side, who finished one point behind Bohs in the regular season table. Niamh Byrne has led Railway well as captain, while Lindsay Peat and Nikki Caughey add plenty of experience, which will be needed on the big day. Bohs have enjoyed an excellent season under former Ireland prop Fiona Hayes. Try-scoring winger Chisom Ugwueru is a major threat out wide, while out-half Kate Flannery, sister of Ulster ‘10’ Kate Flannery has really grown into the demanding play-maker role.

With plenty of future Ireland hopefuls on show, playing on such a big stage at the Aviva Stadium is an ideal opportunity to show Bemand and the international coaches what they are capable of when the pressure is on. The Ireland head coach will have his hands full on Saturday in trying to steer his side to a crucial second Six Nations victory by beating Scotland, which is definitely an achievable goal, especially if back-row Aoife Wafer can continue her excellent campaign.

Come Sunday afternoon, Bemand, like many rugby supporters, will be glued to the action in Dublin, as the Irish club scene aims to show just why there is so much renewed excitement around the Energia All-Ireland Leagues. As recent history reminds us, the final is rarely dull, and with an historic double header to look forward to this time around, Sunday promises to provide even more thrilling entertainment.