Going in to last Saturday’s fixture, a glance at the form lines of both these sides in the Energia AIL of late would have pointed to a tight battle. As it transpired though the win was comprehensive for Nenagh in the end. You could argue that the early kick off to accommodate Ireland’s Six Nations fixture upset Highfield’s rhythm, or maybe they underestimated the task given their place a division above Nenagh in Division 1B of the AIL but all that would devalue what was a superb Nenagh effort on the day.
Conditions were dry in Lisatunny on Saturday with a stiff cross-field breeze offering little advantage either way. Nenagh played to the town end in the first half and enjoyed most of the territory in that period. There was a degree of shadow boxing in the early stages with both teams figuring each other out and play was largely confined to the middle third. In the first scrum of the game it was clear that Highfield felt they could press home a size differential. The ball was controlled at the feet of their no.8 and they put the squeeze on forcing Nenagh to infringe. However from the ensuing lineout Nenagh regained possession and re- established a foothold in the Highfield half. The first try scoring opportunity came soon afterwards. With Highfield being pressed hard in their own half by aggressive Nenagh defending Josh Rowland charged down an attempted clearance kick and won the foot race to the corner. There he showed superb agility to get his body in the air and get the touch down as he threatened to go in to touch in goal. The difficult conversion was missed but at 5-0 up Nenagh would have been happy with their start. From the kick off they again showed ambition to attack and again established a foothold in the Cork side’s half. Try as they might Highfield were finding it tricky to exit and after 30 mins of play Nenagh had a lineout in the Highfield half about 40 metres out from the try line under the stand. Using the wind to their advantage Nenagh went long to John O Flaharty at the tail of the lineout. Nicky Irwin took the delivery and found Willie Coffey on a great line in the centre. He broke the initial defence and showed super footwork to leave the fullback flailing and went in untouched for Nenagh’s second try. This time Patrick Scully added the easier conversion.
There was still time in the half for Highfield to get back on terms and they showed real intent by having their first significant raid in to the Nenagh half. Again the scrum was their primary means of establishing this territory, a penalty won at the set piece allowing them to kick to Nenagh’s corner and go after an opening score. Utilising strong forward carries they battered hard at the Nenagh line but the resistance was firm. Eventually though Nenagh conceded a penalty under pressure right in front of their posts. Despite still being in the first half, the next act was the turning point of this game. Eschewing the easy three points on offer, Highfield smelled blood and looked to go to the scrum where they had been dominant. The decision looked sensible when they immediately forced another penalty. Electing to go again, they probably felt a penalty try might be in the offing. Nenagh’s front row however had obviously been problem solving and this time got the shunt on themselves and were awarded a penalty of their own. The turnover really seemed to break Highfield’s spirit and barring a late consolation score they never had a better scoring opportunity in the game. Also, from having been second best in the scrum battle early doors Nenagh didn’t look back from this point and were rock solid in this aspect for the rest of the game. Even better for Nenagh they had time for one last foray in to Highfield territory and forced a penalty just before half time. Pragmatism was the order of the day. Willie Coffey pointed to the posts and Patrick Scully did the needful for a 15 point half time lead.
Emboldened by their scoreboard dominance and having absorbed what Highfield could muster, Nenagh started the second half in more expansive fashion. Stretching Highfield from side to side they looked to exploit their pace advantage over a Highfield side more reliant on route one attack. Having come in to the side as a late addition for the injured Fionn McGibney player/ coach Derek Corcoran was having a fine game orchestrating the Nenagh attack at fly half. Spotting a mismatch he put in a delightful cross field kick to Patrick Scully on the wing. Despite having work to do Scully spotted the mismatch too and picked off the heavier forward defenders out of position in front of him making it all the way for the score. Improving what was already a fine personal performance he added the conversion and at 22-0 the game was now done as a contest despite having a good deal of time to play.
Highfield to their credit never went away and were not helped by a few injuries to key men breaking their momentum. Unfortunately for them they appeared a little too one dimensional in relying on their forwards to punch holes in a Nenagh defence well up to dealing with them. Both sides made numerous changes in the last quarter and this as well as the injuries stemmed the flow of the game. Nenagh added two penalties from Conor O Brien for their final tally of 28 points while Highfield, in what was a rare period of sustained possession, finally found a chink in the Nenagh cover for an unconverted try late on.
This was a superb performance from Nenagh, earning them a historic first appearance in the Munster Senior Cup final. With five Junior Cups to their name over the club’s long history what odds on adding a senior crown to their record? On this showing, Young Munster, their final opponents, will be taking nothing for granted. As of yet the fixture is unconfirmed but when it does occur it will bring a large Nenagh following no doubt. Highfield are a better side than this showing suggests and perhaps were caught cold on the day. They are pushing hard for a playoff place in Division 1B and will be hard to stop there. But take nothing away from the home side in this one. They were led brilliantly by captain Willie Coffey. Derek Corcoran was top class in the ten shirt as was Patrick Scully on the wing. In the forwards John Hayes came off the bench early and ended up being a standout performer. The forwards as a unit deserve much credit for turning the set-piece battle around when it threatened to be an issue in the opening half an hour. All in all this was a top drawer team effort.
Whenever it gets played the final of this competition will certainly be an interesting day for rugby followers in Tipperary as Nenagh look to be the first team from the county to win the competition.