Another season has come and gone, leaving us sitting in the summer breeze. Another year older and wiser, wondering where the time has gone to.
Once more, rugby provided us with enough drama to certainly make us feel older, but enriching our lives nonetheless, in the way that only sport can. Although it is often said that sport offers a release from the real world, anyone involved knows it is the opposite. Sport holds a mirror up to real life, but magnifies it – the emotions and feelings experienced with sport are the same as life outside the pitch markings, but are larger, more exaggerated. Sadness becomes despair, annoyance becomes rage, pleasure becomes unbridled joy.
So it was that we watched a magnificently dramatic season unfold, with every team in the club involved in tragedies and comedies in equal measure. The AIL gave us all we could have asked for – hope, despair, resignation, hope again, joy and relief, in no particular order. A season that promised so much got off to the worst possible start, with a red card only seven minutes into our first game, followed by a litany of injuries in the second half against a buoyant DUFC side. Somehow, with a makeshift backline including a 20 year old flanker making his AIL debut, we battled back to earn a losing bonus point – a template for things to come.
Although that battling spirit was ever present, a catastrophic catalogue of injuries contributed to a miserable run of results before Christmas. Our first nine games saw just one win – typically, it was a cracking bonus point win over UCD – leaving the team eight points adrift at the bottom of the table and the supporters almost bereft of hope. Oh, ye of little faith…. We should know better at this stage than to doubt the strength of character of these players.
The Christmas period was the seasonal equivalent of Leinster’s half time team talk against Northampton all those years back. Whatever was said, whatever hours of hard work were put in, it worked. Firstly Garryowen were dispatched clinically in Lakelands to give us hope – despite actually slipping further behind to a season nadir of nine points back. The following fixture showcased everything good about the squad, facing Clontarf on a horrible, wet, freezing, windy night in Castle Avenue. Tarf threw everything they had at us, but our line held firm time and again. Numbers on jerseys quickly became irrelevant, both because of mud and the willingness of back and forward alike to throw themselves into tackles. The second half provided a perfect vignette of our injury crisis, with sub scrum half Conor Weakliam forced onto the wing – and mowing down Mick McGrath with his first involvement. Time and again through the season our replacements covered themselves in glory, and on that frigid February night, they took home the points from Clontarf.
The outpouring of emotion at the final whistle set the tone for the rest of the campaign, with an even more astonishing win in the Killing Fields of Young Munster following hot on the heels of that defeat of Clontarf. Our progress was halted somewhat by two subsequent defeats, before a seismic win over Old Belvedere in Lakelands in March. Again, it was our mental reserve that won the day, not flinching despite going behind on the scoreboard and suffering a yellow card late on. The forwards worked two lineouts up the right hand side, before the backs went left, then right, then straight over to claim a nerve-shattering win and take us off the bottom.
A frankly ridiculous rearguard effort to secure a draw in Belfield followed, with the team making more tackles in one game than most do in a full season to claim two valuable points. Runaway league leaders Lansdowne were up next, and just like last season, we ran riot, scoring five tries to absolutely demolish the visitors and take us out of the relegation spots for the first time in the season.
As our own great escape was underway, the league itself was preparing for a madcap, mad as a hatter denouement. On the final day, four teams could claim top spot, and even with Belvo already relegated, still four teams could sink into the relegation playoff. Out of ten teams in the division, eight had everything to play for on a wonderful day of club rugby. Our own final chapter took place in glorious sunshine in Trinity, as both sides went at each other with everything they had left. Tackles and rucks were war zones, bodies were flung into harm’s way and time after time both sides looked to run with the ball. In a truly brilliant game for the neutral, Nure looked to be ending their season in style before Trinity scored a fabulous length of the field score to take the spoils. Thankfully, Lansdowne had salvaged enough form to beat Garryowen, and we could all relax, take a breath and then explode with joy that WE HAD STAYED UP.
As the dust settled, literally and metaphorically, the squad could rightly bask in the glory of their achievement. Without labouring the point of our overcrowded physio table, the 1st squad used almost fifty players in the league this season. While they will surely look back on the first nine games with a slight grimace – being the perfectionists that they are – they can be rightly proud of how so many came together to pull off such a sporting miracle. Also, the emergence of so many players over the course of the last 12 months has left us in a much stronger position for the next few years. Some of our rookies were so central to the season’s efforts that it is hard to fathom that they only stepped up to this level at the start of the season. Allied to the experience of our senior players, and the relative age and wisdom of the previous crop of 20s, the future is an exciting one indeed.