A pulsating Ulster Bank League final ended in delirious joy for Old Belvedere as they claimed their first ever title by beating defending champions Cork Con 20-17 in Donnybrook on Sunday.
Belvedere, despite home advantage in the Dublin four venue, went into the game as rank underdogs due to the sheer number of contracted played in the Con ranks.
A tigerish defence meant Con were allowed precious few openings. They led at half time but two second half tries from John Kennedy gave the outsiders a platform for victory.
Con never looked at their brightest, and with a chance to draw level four minutes from the end, Gerry Hurley hooked the crucial penalty left and wide. Extra time would have been a massive ask for both sides after a titanic tussle with space at a premium.
Belvedere began with a flourish. Off the first scrum Vinnie Soden laid down a marker and Stephen Archer was pinged for taking down the set piece. Typically, Leo Auva’a was making his present felt and after he gave his side go forward ball on the right wing Belvo spun it left for Ben Woods.
The centre found a gaping hole and made every inch count, racing towards the five meter line. He lined up the tackle of fullback Sean Scanlon and offloaded for David Mongan, who was only too happy to reap the five point reward.
Dunne nailed the conversion, but Con hit back immediately through the boot of Hurley. Proving he is, ordinarily, unerringly accurate. He soon added a second penalty as the Cork outfit slowly but surely worked their way into a rhythm.
Con’s kick-chasing left a bit to be desired, but after Dunne was smashed by Ian Nagle, Belvo kicked straight down the throat of Simon Zebo. Counter attacking with zeal he, bounced off the tackle of, man of the match, Kennedy. The quick ball allowed Hurley to release Ivan Dineen, Cyprian Jouve and Scanlon across the pitch. It came to naught, but the thrilling backline move was a beautiful demonstration of the skill-set within the men from the south.
Such was the dominance of the visiting force in this period; they declined a very kickable penalty from the left side of the 22, instead opting for a lineout. Belvedere, from a spritely beginning, were now hanging on.
Zebo was having a ball on the wing. He again breezed through the would-be tackler in the 13 channel and offloaded beautifully for Scanlon. After one more phase the line appeared to be at Con’s mercy but Brian Hayes spilled his chance.
By half time the black and white scrum was moving swiftly backways and when Jason Risden dis-joined himself from his retreating pack, Hurley had a straightforward penalty to give his side a 9-7 half time lead.
Buoyed by a fervent crowd just a few hundred yards from their own clubhouse, the D4 side began the second half just as they did the first: Brimming with intent.
Con were again caught cold, Dunne was held up just shy of the line by Dineen and the black and white cavalry charged over and Kennedy grounded the ball.
In defence, the home side were working extremely well. Outside of Zebo, any progress the Munster men made was slow. The pressure they poured towards the Wesley end of the ground finally paid off on the hour mark.
Their pack loped from left to right and when they eventually released the ball to Hurley, the backs were less than clinical and with a four on three overlap Scanlon just barely squeaked into the corner.
Conal Keane was introduced with his team trailing 14-12, he immediately kicked them back ahead. With the clock ticking downwards, the partisan crowd began to sense an upset. The champions were losing their discipline and it was Mongan, not Zebo who found space to run dangerous lines through.
With 10 minutes remaining Belvo found a huge slice of luck. On the edge of his own 22, fullback Danny Riordan got underneath Hurley’s long kick. He dropped it, ‘backwards’ said the referee and the clearance kick took the game to halfway. Risden stole possession on the back of the line out and Belvo were away. Another scintillating back move resulted in Riordan, on the left wing, putting in Kennedy for his second touch-down of the day, this one too went unconverted.
Brian Walsh had already shuffled his backs with Hurley moving into the pocket and Deasy to outside centre. The new fly-half narrowed the gap to a single score and soon, he was presented with an easier chance to level matters. But from 20 meters, on a slight angle, he pulled the ball left of the posts.
With 80 minutes on the clock, Belvo had worked their way through Mongan to the same position at the Bective end where they won a penalty. Unconcerned by the score line, Keane took great pleasure in booting the ball out of play and he sunk to his knees to receive the glory.
Glory on a great weekend for Leinster rugby as they provided the AIL winners and Heineken Cup finalists for just a second time.
Cork Constitution: S Scanlon, R Lane C Jouve, I Dineen, S Zebo; S Deasy, G Hurley; F Cogan (capt) B Cutriss, B Holland; I Nagle, B Hayes; S Archer, D Fogarty, M Gately
Old Belvedere: D Riordan, E Devitt, J Kennedy, B Woods, D Mongan; A Dunne, S Keogh; L Auva’a, J Risden, J Slattery; B Marshall, R Leyden; S Maguire, D Gilchrist, V Soden.