Cork rugby: Frustration for Highfield, who were on the brink of AIL promotion

Cork rugby: Frustration for Highfield, who were on the brink of AIL promotion
Paul Stack of Highfield breaks away as Shannon's Ikem Ugwueru puts in a big hit on Dave O'Sullivan in the AIL at Thomond Park. Picture: Don Moloney

HIGHFIELD have grown accustomed to be short-listed in the various try-of-the-month competitions.

Flying wing Ben Murphy was the latest contender for February, when he finished off a brilliant run from second-row Eoin Keating during the 38-12 home win over Navan.

Keating took off up the hill from inside his own half of the pitch and looked a like one of those nags at Cheltenham as he gobbled out the ground, shrugging aside all attempted tackles.

The bullocking lock managed to reach the visitors' 22 before eventually hauled down, but Keating still had the presence of mind to look up, spot Murphy on his outside and deliver a perfectly timed pass.

And while Highfield didn't get the judge's call this time, it was another example of the quality of football being played by the Cork club, not only this season, but in the past four or five campaigns, too.

This sort of enterprising play was recognised, when Luke Kingston won the try of the month for December 2018 in the big win over Old Crescent in Limerick during the club's division 2B promotion season.

It's a much-lauded approach by player-coach Timmy Ryan, who has again steered 'Field to the brink of another promotion, which would be the fourth in six seasons.

They are on the cusp of an historic first appearance in division 1A next season, holding a nine-point lead over second-placed Old Wesley with just four games remaining.

One of those should have been the return game against St Mary's at Woodleigh Park last Saturday, but that fell victim to the blanket ban on games because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Highfield's remaining games also include a visit to second from bottom Naas, Banbridge at home before wrapping up against Malone in Belfast.

Dave O'Sullivan, Highfield, is tackled by Neil Faloon, City of Armagh. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Dave O'Sullivan, Highfield, is tackled by Neil Faloon, City of Armagh. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Supporters are a bit like those of Liverpool, waiting anxiously that games are completed before officials take the outcomes of their respective title bids out of their hands completely.

This is 'Field's first attempt in what is effectively the second tier of the domestic game and while they would have harboured some doubts about mounting another promotion effort, Ryan's men have taken to it like ducks to water.

They won their opening five games, claiming important bonus points in back-to-back ties against Banbridge, when wing Colin O'Neill helped himself to four tries.

And back-rower James Cronin grabbed a hat-trick in the next game against Naas.

The sixth game away to Navan was unusual because the Co Kildare club couldn't field a team for the second successive week due to an outbreak of mumps.

League organisers weren't best pleased and awarded the game to the Cork club on a 28-0 scoreline, four tries and another bonus point.

Navan appealed the decision, but this was kicked to touch as the league pacesetters await the arrival of a strong City of Armagh outfit for their seventh fixture.

Again, 'Field were victorious but their winning run came at a halt in a thrilling encounter away to Old Wesley on the astro pitch in Donnybrook.

Still, they collected a losing bonus point as 'Field entered what was probably the most decisive spell in the 18-game slog.

That involved playing Shannon, home and away, hosting Wesley and travelling to Armagh, a series of games which would expose any kinks.

Shane O'Riordan, Highfield, kicks a penalty against City of Armagh. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Shane O'Riordan, Highfield, kicks a penalty against City of Armagh. Picture: Jim Coughlan

'Field prevailed brilliantly, winning three of the four and snatching a try bonus point as well.

Their lone defeat was a resounding defeat away to Shannon, the only game in which the Cork side left empty-handed.

Since then they've won all their games, four on the spin, to put themselves within touching distance of the promised land.

To-date, 'Field have won a dozen of their 14 games, losing just twice, and their stats underline why they're the stand-out team once again.

They lead the scoring charts with 336 points, 34 more than next-best Shannon and 'Field's defensive stat of 201 points conceded is only three points worse than Wesley, who've the meanest defence with 198 points conceded.

Close observers of the table will note that the Cork side's points tally of 54 doesn't equate with a dozen wins (48 points) and five bonus points.

That's because the standings don't include the bonus point from the Navan game, when 'Field were awarded a walk-over.

In all, some 16 players have crossed for tries with O'Neill and Murphy leading the way on six apiece and followed by Cronin and Sam Burns on three each.

Murphy's collection is made up of two tries in three games, all at home against Shannon, Wesley and Navan.

There's a couple each for Kingson and Dan Healy while 'Field were also awarded two penalty tries.

Ciaran McHugh and Dave O'Connell of Highfield get to grips with Ronan Coffey of Shannon in the AIL at Thomond Park, Limerick.Picture: Don Moloney
Ciaran McHugh and Dave O'Connell of Highfield get to grips with Ronan Coffey of Shannon in the AIL at Thomond Park, Limerick.Picture: Don Moloney

Out-half Shane O'Riordan, who plays Gaelic football with Glanworth, is the team's leading scorer on 102 points, comprising 26 conversions, 14 penalties, a drop-goal and a try to clinch the bonus point at home to Wesley.

Now, it's a matter of playing the waiting game, sure to be a frustrating time for all concerned, especially as the IRFU dictat stipulates a cessation of all rugby activities.

In their statement, the Union said it will work closely with clubs when it comes to re-arranging fixtures, and Highfield are sure to be keeping their fingers crossed that the return to action is sooner rather than later.

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