It’s not always in sport that an extraordinary story gets the ending it deserves. Yet to appreciate the full significance of Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) Men’s promotion-clinching victory over Ballynahinch in April 2016, in the Division 1B final of the All-Ireland League, you need to look at it in the context of what was a remarkable 12 months for the side.
Almost a year to the day before the famous win in Ballynahinch, Trinity had missed out on promotion to the top division of the AIL by one point, with a slow start to the 2014/15 campaign costing them. Fast forward four months from that disappointment and the lethargy shown at the start of the 2015/2016 season was worryingly similar to the year previous, to the point where head coach Tony Smeeth began to feel marginally uneasy.
“We were the best team in the league that [2014/15] season, but we lost our first four games – that’s what cost us. I remember thinking: ‘Surely not again.’”
“But that always happens with us – we start slow, but once we got that first win I knew we’d be up there again”.
His assurance wasn’t misplaced. A ruthless ascent up the table ensued, with an immense Colours victory – the first in years – over University College Dublin (UCD) in College Park the acme of an unrelenting highlight reel.
We were the best team in the league in 2014/15 season, but we lost our first four games – that’s what cost us. I remember thinking: ‘Surely not again’
At the time, UCD were in the division above Trinity and boasted a line-up that included 12 Leinster A players, including Ross Byrne and Andrew Porter – now established in Leinster’s first team. Some 3,000 people turned out to watch the sides that day.
It’s hardly surprising that Smeeth remembers the win vividly: “We blew them away that day, we were phenomenal … we put 30 points on them, no bother. We were playing great rugby, almost telepathic at that stage, because the team had been together for nearly two years.”
With a win over the country’s strongest collegiate outfit under their belts, DUFC were in contention for the league title as they season drew to a close. It came down to the penultimate game of the season for the second consecutive year, with Trinity’s fate in their own hands: win and went up, lose, and they were left relying on other results.
They were away to a St Mary’s side for whom a win would mean promotion. It was a classic “winner takes all”, and having dispatched St Mary’s comfortably earlier in the season, DUFC would have felt confident they could get the job done.
When the referee blew for full-time with the score 9-5 to the hosts, it was a fairly tough pill for Trinity to swallow. “It was a total shock, totally unplanned”, recalls Smeeth. “No one expected it – we just didn’t expect to lose. This was the best team I’d coached since [Jamie] Heaslip’s 03/04 group. We just weren’t at all ready for it.”
Like the previous season, DUFC had just missed out on automatic promotion. This time, though they had a chance to set the record straight in the play-offs
“They just were really hyped up and got under our skin”, reflects former DUFC blindside and captain Nick McCarthy.
There was no time for wound-licking, however. Like the previous season, DUFC had just missed out on automatic promotion. This time, though they had a chance to set the record straight in the play-offs.
Were they to win the semi-final against Ballymena and then win in the final, it would seal promotion for a side knocking on the door for years, but for whom time was running out – all bar three squad members were in their fourth year.
Not only was this their last shot at glory, though – summer exams were just a couple of weeks away.
“It was immense commitment really”, says McCarthy. A lot of the lads missed Trinity Ball even though we had a couple of weeks before the semi-final. The strength in leadership was unreal. I didn’t have to do too much talking, but unfortunately for the boys I definitely did.”
“It was a great atmosphere in the team and the club as a whole, with [ex-captain] Patrick Lavelle staying on and helping us all on and off the field, especially me with leading the team.”
Angus Lloyd, scrum-half that day and a centrepiece throughout the season, has a similar recollection of their shared commitment. “We were actually pretty focused”, says Lloyd, now plying his trade with Connacht. “Most of us had been building towards this game for two years now. We’d been through it all together, so we weren’t about to let this one go.”
They reaped the rewards of this dedication, with a storming victory over Ballymena in the play-off semi-final. “I was more nervous about that than the final, actually”, muses McCarthy.
“They finished a place behind us and could’ve easily won automatic promotion themselves, so it was not an easy one. And the size of them – they were huge!”
It was immense commitment really. A lot of the lads missed Trinity Ball even though we had a couple of weeks before the semi-final
DUFC now faced Ballynahinch in the final, but the task was far from straightforward. For one thing, exams were now just a week away. “All were studying and reading on the way up – each lad had two seats to himself”, chuckles Smeeth. “I’d never seen anything like it, but that was the background for us – we were constantly trying to find a balance.”
Considering the strength of the opposition, their academic focus is even more surprising. “They had 11 Ulster players playing that day”, Smeeth says.
The performance itself didn’t reach the heights of the UCD game. “We had to defend for large periods”, admits Smeeth. “It wasn’t our best performance, to be honest.”
“We were quite a bit nervous”, says Lloyd. He adds, though, that “we were definitely the better team on the day, especially with the wind in the second half. We knew we had it then”.
Special praise is reserved by all three men for the performance of openside flanker Brian du Toit. “He was immense”, Smeeth says. “His opposite man – who we knew was a key player for them – he just ate him alive.”
McCarthy points to the “huge number of turnovers that he won – it was just incredible”.
It was therefore little surprise to anyone when the try eventually came that sealed the game. “That try we scored to win it though – that was ridiculous”, says McCarthy. “[Full-back] Max McFarlane, what a player … I nearly got sick of the sight of the back of him actually as I tried to keep up to support him.”
Not that any of them would have it any other way. “I don’t think we’d have appreciated it as much as we did if we’d just won that game the season before”, reflected McCarthy. “I have to say, I look back on that year with a lot of smiles.”
It seems to have left the club in a good place too, with Trinity still fighting in Division 1A and constantly pushing the top clubs in the league. “They’re getting a completely different calibre of player now”, says Lloyd. “Several Leinster A and Ireland under-20s – far more than we had.”
Not that the 2016 vintage were a bad lot – Lloyd himself turns out for Clontarf having played for three of the four provinces in the Pro 14. Du Toit went on to captain the Cambridge intervarsity-winning team the following year, and try-hero Max McFarlane now plays for the Scottish sevens team.
Irrespective, though, of who they currently line out for, one thing they will always share is the journey of that season and the sweet taste of victory on that historic day.