HIGHFIELD club captain Fintan O’Sullivan can vividly remember the moment he discovered the 2019/20 All-Ireland League season had been cancelled.
When domestic rugby was initially suspended on March 12, the Woodleigh Park side found themselves nine points clear at the summit of the Division 1B table with just four games left.
Fast forward seven days and O’Sullivan reconvened with player-coach Timmy Ryan to discuss how best to deal with a potential return to competitive action.
It was at this point that news filtered through that their campaign was brought to an abrupt end.
“We were out walking. Chatting about trying to get back on track. Then his phone starts going mad, flying off the handle. He looks at his phone and he says ‘the season has been cancelled by the IRFU. There has been a statement released’.
“He read it out loud and we didn’t really talk for about 10 or 15 minutes. We were just walking! I think we were both just so gutted. There’s that initial borderline grievance. There’s denial at the start.
“You’re kind of going ‘ah no, we can play it in July. We can play it in August, we can do this. We can figure it out’. I reckon there’s some people up in Highfield still feel that way.”
Now that almost four months have passed since their final game of the term, O’Sullivan and his team-mates have fully come to terms with missing out on their fourth promotion in just six years.
Despite being on the brink on reaching the top-flight before the coronavirus outbreak took hold, he has no qualms about the decision reached by the IRFU.
“It’s a line in the sand for me and the lads anyway. It’s done now. I was asked before going into 1B what are expectations and I said ‘minimum top-four’. I think I got a lot of wry smiles and grins from people when I said it, because they probably didn’t believe me.
“We were in a really good position to outright win that league. Let alone top four. We were all incredibly disappointed for it to end that way, but it’s self- explanatory.
“There’s no problem there really. It was the right decision in the end.”
Having steered the ship for the Cork city outfit’s incredible rise through the ranks, the aforementioned Ryan will be moving on to pastures new in the coming months. Following an eventful professional career that encompassed spells at Munster, Toulon, Newcastle Falcons and Dragons, he returned to his boyhood club in 2014.
Not only did he make a massive contribution off the field, but Ryan continued to push high standards as a playing member of the squad featuring on numerous occasions in the most recent campaign.
While acknowledging a void will need to be filled at tighthead prop within the first-team squad, O’Sullivan has full confidence in the abilities of new head coach Conor Quaid. After serving his apprenticeship in an assistant role, the 38-year-old will be tasked with keeping Highfield on an upward spiral.
“He [Quaid] was the eyes and ears along with Maurice Power on the sideline. Maurice is with us for the last four or five years as well. Quaidy has a great feel for how we play. He has seen it all from the sideline. He’ll be able to continue doing that.
“Timmy, when he’s in the middle of it, there’s only so much he can do. Going forward it’s really good to have someone like Quaidy there as a continuity from the coaching side of things.”
Though the path has seemingly been cleared for a return to club rugby in September, it remains unclear what the 2020/21 season will look like.
Whatever structures are put in place, O’Sullivan is adamant Highfield will be hoping to complete some ‘unfinished business’ as far as the All-Ireland League is concerned.
“You hear people throwing out all of these ideas. I don’t know if there’s validity in any of them. I can’t speak for everyone in Highfield, but I’m relatively sure everyone wants an AIL full season again. We want another crack at the whip.
“We have unfinished business to a certain extent with the AIL.
“We felt we were good enough to be in 1A and we want that opportunity again to get there,” O’Sullivan said.