If Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) had been flirting, for a while, with their status as a genuine force in Division 1 of the Ulster Bank League, then today was the day when they confirmed it. A 31-19 win over Shannon in College Park – secured alongside an impressive bonus point – may well prove invaluable come the season’s end, but more than that it laid down a marker to the rest of the division that DUFC are no longer also-rans at the top table of Irish club rugby.
The win was made all the more impressive by the fact that it came without Jack Kelly, Michael Silvester and captain Colm Hogan, so often the spark plugs in Trinity’s backline, who were unavailable for selection.
Shannon, meanwhile, had plenty of experience to call upon, with players of the calibre of Conor Fitzgerald – returning to the side after having made several starts for Connacht in recent weeks – featuring in their starting lineup.
It was DUFC, however, who started the stronger of the two sides. Kicking off into the Shannon half, they immediately applied pressure. After a poor clearance from Shannon, a beautiful inside pass found Giuseppe Coyne. Coyne carried well in open space and, halted just five metres short, displayed immense strength to drive over and give the students an early lead. James Fennelly converted well, the beginning of what was another imperious day from the boot.
Shannon hit back powerfully, immediately wrestling back control from the kick off and applying huge pressure on the DUFC scrum. Penalties mounted for the visitors along with the strain on DUFC’s defence.
First, with Ikem Ugwueru almost certain to touch down, the long pass that set him free him was adjudged to have been marginally forward. Soon after, as the ball was shifted from left to right on the DUFC 22, the visitors found themselves two on one with the try line beckoning. However, full-back Jake Flannery failed to release Ugwueru on time and was instead wrapped up through a fabulous defensive effort from Fennelly and Ronan Quinn.
Finally, Fitzgerald scythed through the Trinity defensive line, before chipping ahead and collecting. Shannon celebrated, but referee Robert O’Sullivan had spotted a knock on and somehow the visitors remained scoreless.
The Limerick side, however, were not to be denied for much longer. After DUFC’s Dylan Doyle was sent to the sin-bin, Flannery broke once more through DUFC’s backline and touched down.
Shannon, at this stage, were in the ascendancy, and set up camp in Trinity’s half, but the hosts managed to repel the onslaught. With Doyle returning to the fray, Trinity seized back control of the game again and Fennelly slotted over a penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Having been extremely fortunate to be ahead 10-7 at the break, the students were forced to re-evaluate and returned for the second half a transformed side. Despite receiving the restart, DUFC immediately put the visitors on the back foot, and moments later were celebrating another superb running try. Max Kearney made a clever half-break, but it was after his offload to Dan Sheehan that College Park was set alight. A 40-yard run from DUFC’s hooker, through Shannon’s defensive line, left him with only Flannery to beat, and his pace to evade the Shannon full-back and slam over would have left many rubbing their eyes.
Not to be outdone, however, Shannon soon hit back with a superb try of their own, created after a stunning series of play and culminating in Craig Casey slithering into a gap and offloading. Casey immediately collected from the ruck and delivered quick ball before wrapping around for a return pass and diving over the whitewash.
With the game so finely poised, at 17-14, any mistake would prove fatal, and so it proved just before the hour. A Fennelly clearance floated downfield and straight down the throat of Fitzgerald, and as the out-half looked ahead at the space in front of him, his eye seemed to wander from the ball for just a moment. From there Trinity proved clinical. After a number of phases off the ensuing scrum, Trinity broke the gain line and Thomas Clarkson burrowed over to extend the lead to two scores once more.
Within moments of Fennelly tacking on the extras, DUFC were threatening again. Another Coyne break laid the foundation for a lovely run from outside centre James Hickey, whose offload found Liam Turner. With no Shannon players in sight, Turner angled home from the 22 and touched down to secure a bonus point.
Soon after, Ugwueru managed finally to get his try for the visitors, crashing through from the five metre line and touching down. Fitzgerald failed to match Fennelly’s 100 per cent record on the day and narrowly kicked wide.
Trinity relaxed and saw the game out with ease, further evidence of the side’s evolution since last year.
Whereas earlier this season and on several instances last year the students had been caught cold in games they had dominated, this game showcased their ability to remain in games during poor periods before taking advantage of their own purple patches and ruthlessly capitalising on mistakes.
DUFC are propelled into fourth place and in the playoff spots. Their mettle will be tested once more next week when they travel to face Mike Ruddock’s in-form Lansdowne outfit. However, the quality and character that they showed today serves to underline their credentials, for the first time in decades, as perhaps one of the country’s strongest teams.