The favourites tag doesn’t normally sit comfortably with Irish teams. Our chosen element is normally surprise, waiting in the long grass to take down Goliath with humble weaponry. Cork Constitution are a different animal.
They may have less than half the AIL titles as Shannon, but they are perennial contenders. Now, after topping the league table for the fifth year in succession, Con find it difficult to disguise their quiet confidence.
That has a lot to do with the professionals bolstering their ranks. Ivor Dineen, Scott Deasy, Ian Nagle and Billy Holland have all been regular members of the Munster squad in the Magners League thanks to the IRFU’s player management scheme forcing rest periods on the elite internationals.
It would be understandable, therefore, if there was a level of egotism and begrudgery when some of the big names come back to the grassroots and waltz into the first XV. Not so, according to Captain Frank Cogan, who says the pro contingent happily return to the club every week and put their shoulder to the wheel just like anybody else in the dressing room.
“As much as the lads who are there every day of the week, they (Munster contracted players) buy into what we’re about and they are very much a part of it. They’ll put their bodies on the line as much for Cork Con as they would for Munster or anyone else.
“It’s not like they’re strangers to us” added the number eight: “Everyone falls in together, there’s young guys coming through this year who are as much a part of it as fellas who have been there for 10 years.”
Cogan was reluctant to churn out the ‘team spirit’ cliché, but he had danced round the elephant in the room long enough: “There is a great spirit there and we all buy into it, so that’s the key ingredient for us really, team spirit.”
Backslapping and a happy camp are all very well, but Con have a steely determination about them to match. Determination to retain, for the first time in the club’s history, the title they lifted last year.
At the time of writing Con are still without Nagle and prop Stephen Archer who were named in a 27 man Munster squad ahead of the Amlin semi-final against Harlequins. But head coach Brian Walsh is expecting the pair to be on domestic, rather than European duty this weekend. Whoever plays though, he will be expecting a big performance:
“We’re hoping (the team) won’t be too dissimilar to the last game we played. We hope to get the lads back and have our better players playing.
“Having said that, looking back over the season some of our best performances have come without any contracted players in the team.”
As for the prospect of the ravenous Belvo crowd who are sure to engulf the Dublin 4 venue which sits about five minutes’ walk from the Anglesea Road clubhouse; Cogan was asked whether ‘home’ advantage would make Sunday’s opponent extra dangerous.
“Maybe so, you wouldn’t know.” He dead-batted, insisting the fixture would hold no surprises for them. “We’re well used to coming up to Dublin and playing anyway, so it’s not a major factor for us. We enjoy coming up here.”
“They’ll have a big crowd I presume. We’ll have that against us, but we’re used to that anyway; the Young Munster crowd outnumbered us in our own ground.”
Walsh too is expecting a partisan turnout for Belvo, but he was not worried about its impact on the tough side of the whitewash. Instead, he is confident that his troops are geared up to face any atmosphere:
“You try to get to a level with a side where a pitch is a pitch, wherever you play. It’ll be the same for both sides.”
It may be the same for all 30 players, but Walsh was clearly disappointed that the final was to be played in Donnybrook. Not because of its proximity to Belvedere, but due to its normality.
There is no novelty of playing there, no sense of glitz or glamour to separate it from a regular league fixture. On top of that, the pitch is looking a little on the brown side, having doubled as a schools rugby venue for the best part of the last four months.
“I just think, historically, the final was played in the IRFU headquarters. I know that may not be possible in Aviva,” lamented Walsh.
“But certainly there are other grounds such as the RDS or Thomond Park. It’s being televised and I just feel: You want to promote the product, so I don’t see why you can’t give it (the final) the facility it deserves.”
Cogan was on the same page as his head coach, suggesting that there should be an intangible reward after the long road to the final, the chance to play at the new Lansdowne Road.
“It would be an extra incentive obviously.” Said Cogan, his eyes widening at the very idea “It’s a great honour to play in the national stadium; the Aviva is an amazing stadium.
“It would be great to get a run out there, but unfortunately it’s not the case at the moment. Hopefully, someday the AIL final will be back in there.”
That won’t be possible for a couple of years at least. From next season on, rather than the current playoff system, the title will be awarded to the club who finishes first in the league. After doing just that for the past five years, Cork Con will be quietly confident that they can be top of the pile again next season.
For now, the 2012 crown is the very last thing on their minds, Belvedere are now the only target sight. And Cogan revealed the one thing he is certain that he, his amateur and professional teammates have had in common from the very start of this season:
“We all have the same goal, we all want to win the AIL and that’s the bottom line no matter what happens.”