ALMOST A DECADE after Shannon won their third consecutive All-Ireland League, Clontarf are looking to make history this Saturday by becoming the first Leinster club ever to win back-to-back titles.

Sam Cronin [left] with Lansdowne captain Ron Boucher at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Limerick outfit Shannon were one of the lords of the early days of the AIL, winning four titles in a row from 1995 to 1998 and also securing those three consecutive league wins from 2004 to 2006.

Genuine dominance, but Shannon are currently a Division 1B club and haven’t had any say in this season’s top flight.

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The Aviva Stadium instead hosts Clontarf and Lansdowne on Saturday for the Ulster Bank League final [KO 13.00], a continuation of the Dublin clubs’ growing dominance of Division 1A, all four of the most recent winners having come from the capital.

Lansdowne lifted the trophy in 2013, before Clontarf dramatically claimed last season’s crown on the final day, meaning this exciting clash offers more bragging rights than usual.

With the play-offs reintroduced this season, Andy Wood’s Clontarf side came through a gruelling semi-final away to Terenure two weekends ago on a 9-0 scoreline in tough conditions to ensure ambitions of retaining their title remain intact.

“It would be nice to go back-to-back and be the first Leinster team to do it, but to be honest Lansdowne will have their own agenda in doing it twice in three years,” says Clontarf head coach Wood.

“It would be a nice thing to do, but we’ll be focused on getting our best team out there and getting our best performance as well. Then we can look at all of that [the records] after the game.”

Wood led ‘Tarf to their title success last season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Still, there is real excitement within the Dublin 3 club at the prospect of creating that history. Clontarf captain Sam Cronin – a former Munster U21, Ireland Clubs and Irish Universities representative – admits as much.

“It would be a massive feat and it kind of shows how club rugby has changed,” says Cronin.

“From our team last year, a couple of guys got picked up for contracts and that kind of thing, so there’s a natural kind of loss in your player pool, which maybe Shannon didn’t have back in the days they were retaining the league season-on-season.

‘Tarf were missing the influence of out-half David Joyce last time out against Terenure, although their excellent centre Matt D’Arcy took over place-kicking duties as the experienced and intelligent Evan Ryan moved into the 10 shirt.

“They were probably our two stand out players on the day,” says Cronin, but Clontarf would prefer to have Joyce – last season’s Rising Star of the Year – back from a shoulder injury for Saturday’s clash with Lansdowne.

“We’re going to give him until the last possible moment,” says head coach Wood. “Hopefully he’ll do some running on Thursday [today] and then if we have to fitness test him on Saturday, we’ll give him that opportunity.

Cronin runs a support line off Evan Ryan, who played at 10 against Terenure. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“It’s been tough for him because obviously he’s been leading the ship all the way. But Evan stepped up and did a fantastic job against Terenure, so whoever we have we’ll put our best foot forward.”

Clontarf were league runners-up in 2003, 2006, and 2009 before they finally ended their AIL wait last season, but Corkman Cronin underlines that there was never any baggage for the players based on those past narrow misses.

“We’re reigning champions, that’s our recent history,” says Cronin.

However, Wood was involved in each of those three seasons in which ‘Tarf came up short, as a player for the first two and then as coach in ’09. Though his most recent experience is a winning one, he will draw on the range of experiences this weekend.

“The players have won an AIL now, I didn’t do that as a player,” says Wood. “I wish I could have, but obviously the other teams’ performances on those day were a factor as well.

“I’ll be drawing on as much experience as I can as a coach, and the players will do the same. It all adds up, but it’s certainly a heck of a lot nicer winning than it is losing.”

Originally published 06.30

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