AIL: Highfield eye up history but mighty Shannon stand in their way

Victory in Thomond Park will see Cork side promoted to the top flight of club rugby
AIL: Highfield eye up history but mighty Shannon stand in their way

Highfield's leading try-scorer Cian Bohane in action against Old Wesley. Picture: Larry Cummins

IT all began on October 1 and now eight months and 19 games later Highfield’s season comes down to the last day, the energia All-Ireland League Division 1A Promotion/Relegation final against rivals Shannon on the side pitch at Thomond Park tomorrow at 2.30.

The stakes are huge. For the Cork club, victory would create history with the reward of a maiden appearance in the top tier next season while Shannon don’t want to relinquish their place among the elite having battled hard to get back up there this time 12 months ago.

The clubs don’t lack familiarity with one another. Twice, they met in the regular Division 1B season last term, Shannon dogging it out for a 6-0 victory in the early December mud and followed it up by drawing 9-9 at Woodleigh Park six weeks later.

The clubs played a third game in the semi-final with Highfield enjoying home advantage only to be denied 25-19 in a typically tense encounter which went to the wire before Shannon prevailed and then clinched promotion by defeating Naas at home in the decider.

It meant another season in the second division for Highfield, who were again among the promotion candidates from the off, eventually finishing third with City of Armagh gaining the automatic spot and leaving the Cork side with a tricky away semi-final against Old Belvedere.

They adapted well to the unseasonal wintry conditions with half-backs Chris Banon and James Taylor dictating where the game would be played with by ensuring their side dominated territory, cup rugby in effect and the Munster side benefitted hugely from this approach.

Tries from wing Luke Kingston, prop Darragh Fitzgerald and scrum-half Banon, two of which were converted by Taylor, helped the visitors to a narrow 19-17 victory after a nervy finish, when the Dublin club threatened to steal it late on.

At the same time on their own patch in Limerick, Shannon flexed their muscles in the second half of their semi-final against Old Wesley, eventually running out comfortable 24-6 winners with tries from hooker Jordan Prenderville, wings Josh Costello and Aaron Hehir and flanker Colm Heffernan with out-half Michael Cooke kicking a couple of conversions.

Shannon, the most successful club in the history of the league with nine titles, found themselves in the nerve-wrecking play-offs after finishing ninth in Division 1A, accumulating 34 points from six wins including 10 bonus points.

 Highfield's Miah Cronin winning this ball as he is about to be tackled by Jack O'Donnell of Shannon at Woodleigh Park. Picture: Dan Linehan
Highfield's Miah Cronin winning this ball as he is about to be tackled by Jack O'Donnell of Shannon at Woodleigh Park. Picture: Dan Linehan

Normally that would be enough to avoid any relegation issues, but UCD managed to stay four points ahead of the Limerick club, who were well clear of their city rivals Garryowen, a club who’ll be in Division 1B next season.

The prospect of a second Limerick club being ejected from the highly competitive top tier and leaving Young Munster as the lone club from the area next year just adds another ingredient to what is bound to be an emotional afternoon.

Covid blew Highfield off course for promotion to Division 1A, but now they’re just 80 minutes away even though the odds are stacked against them.

Yet, the visitors though have a wealth of experience and know-how, ranging from leading try scorer Cian Bohane with eight to his name from full-back, to number 8 Miah Cronin and the likes of seven-try contributors, hooker Travis Coomey and the versatile Kingston.

Taylor is the side’s leading scorer with 84 points, courtesy of a couple of tries, 25 conversions and eight penalties with Highfield touching down in total for 54 tries in their 19 outings. Wing Ben Murphy and consistent flanker Amhlaoibh Porter scored four apiece.

Gaining parity up front against a powerful Shannon forward pack is essential, notably at scrum-time, while there’s an engrossing back-row battle looming where Highfield skipper David O’Connell, Cronin and Porter lock horns against the formidable Daniel Okeke, Lee Nicholas and Heffernan.

Conditions look ideal and while Shannon carry all the advantages, playing at home and at higher level all season, Highfield have little to lose. They’ll give it one good crack and see what happens.

It’s the end of another gripping club season and fittingly the best two in the country, Clontarf and Terenure College collide at the Aviva on Sunday to determine Ireland’s leading side in what’s expected to be a belter.

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