UCC’S four-year stint in the top division of the energia All-Ireland League ended with a 52-34 aggregate defeat by Ballynahinch in the relegation play-off at the weekend.
It’s back to division 1B next season, where they’ll have a couple of local derbies with Highfield and games against St Mary’s and Banbridge among others.
The latter duo are significant in that College overcame St Mary’s 36-24 in the 2018 promotion play-off semi-final, when Peter Sylvester crossed twice in their five-try haul, before edging Banbridge 15-10 in the final.
On that historic afternoon at the end of another demanding campaign, tries from John Hodnett and Paul Kiernan and a conversion and penalty from James Taylor helped College, who had to travel for both games, over the line.
This time, the Students were always behind the eight-ball after losing the first leg by four points at the Mardyke and a slow start compounded their plight after Hinch opened up a 17-point lead in the second-leg.
College, though, didn’t go down without a fight and tries from young out-half Andrew O’Mahony, who also scored in the home game, and second-row Mark Bissessar, both converted by Daniel Squires, who also kicked a penalty, levelled matters at 17-17 at the break.
The Ulster side were in no mood for any more College heroics, however, and seized control of the second half via their dominant set-piece to add a couple of converted tries and seal their place among the elite for another season.
College teams are cyclical by their nature and there’ll be a chunk of players moving on to be replaced by the next crop though young half-backs O’Mahony and Billy Kiernan reflect the talent that remains.
It’s up front, though, that College will hope to strengthen their resources because their younger, lighter and less experienced pack found it hard going against the old grizzlies.
Not that Division 1B will be a picnic either because the likes of Old Wesley, ’Field and newly promoted Buccaneers will be just as formidable at scrum, line-out and the break-down.
UCC’s seat at the top table will now be occupied by Shannon, the most successful club in the 30-year history of the league after they completed a memorable run-in by clinching the lone promotion spot with a 30-15 home win over Naas.
Ulster-bound out-half Jake Flannery scored 20 points, a try, three conversions and three penalties in his last outing in the famous blue and black jerseys for the foreseeable future.
The Limerick club timed their run perfectly, having been outside the top four before winning their last seven games to surge into third place, just behind Highfield, whom they defeated in the semi-final.
Also promoted were Buccaneers, Blackrock College and Enniscorthy while Clonmel preserved their senior status by dispatching City of Derry back to junior ranks, winning 41-34 on aggregate.
While Sunday’s Well and Midleton won’t miss the long-haul journeys to Derry next season, the pair will still have to plan northern trips after Belfast’s Instonians won the junior round-robin play-off against Bective Rangers.
Buccaaneers’ promotion to Division 1B was certainly against the head after losing 40-8 to hot-shots Queens during the regular season before overturning it in the promotion play-off, winning 18-17 in Belfast.
Clontarf are the champion club for the third time after pipping Terenure College 29-23 in a terrific final at the Aviva Stadium.
There was disappointment for former PBC and UCC centre Sylvester, who claimed the opening try for Terenure but ended on the losing side in a tense finish that could have gone either way.
The new champions were the most consistent side all through, winning their last 16 games and losing just once in the gruelling 20-match schedule of 18 regular games and two in the play-offs.
Clontarf have set the bar for next season, which will have five Leinster clubs, four from Munster and one from Ulster in the top flight.
Division 1A: Clontarf, Terenure College, Lansdowne, Cork Constitution, Trinity College, Young Munster, Garryowen, UCD, Ballynahinch, Shannon.
Division 1B: UCC, Old Wesley, Highfield, Naas, St Mary’s, City of Armagh, Old Belvedere, Malone, Banbridge, Buccaneers.
Division 2A: Navan, Queens, Cashel, Ballymena, Old Crescent, MU Barnhall, UL Bohemians, Dolphin, Nenagh Ormond, Blackrock College.
Division 2B: Rainey Old Boys, Greystones, Belfast Harlequins, Corinthians, Wanderers, Sligo, Dungannon, Malahide, Galwegians, Enniscorthy.
Division 2C: Ballina, Skerries, Bangor, Tullamore, Midleton, Bruff, Omagh Academicals, Sundays Well, Clonmel, Instonians.