Old Belvedere and defending champions UL Bohemian will meet in the Women’s All Ireland League final for a third year in a row tomorrow at Portlaoise RFC.
UL Bohemian had an almost perfect regular season, registering 13 wins and 12 try-scoring bonus points to 10 points clear of closest rivals Railway Union, who were knocked out by Old Belvedere 10-7 in a tense Dublin derby at last weekend’s semi-final stage.
Chasing their 13th league crown, Bohs, who brought in Sean Fitzpatrick as head coach this term, sent out a statement with their 58-8 semi-final victory over depleted Cooke, during which Nicole Cronin, Ireland captain Ciara Griffin and Laura Sheehan scored two tries each.
This is very familiar territory for Belvedere, albeit that they have also have a new head coach this year in Josh Brown. They will hope that history repeats itself as when they were last crowned league champions in 2015/16, the Dubliners finished third in the table, won an away semi-final and edged out UL 19-17 in a gripping final at Donnybrook.
Bohs’ and ‘Belvo remain the standard bearers of Irish Women’s club rugby, although Railway Union, the recent Women’s All-Ireland Cup winners and second-place finishers in the table, are drawing ever closer to a first league title, and all three are capable of beating each other on the day. As ever, a number of current and former Ireland internationals will face off against each other at the weekend, adding extra spice to the midlands clash.
Belvedere boast an experienced spine of players, joined this season by Ireland’s star centre Sene Naoupu, and the latter’s former international colleague, Nora Stapleton, remains a pivotal figure in the number 10 jersey. She kicked a penalty and converted a crucial intercept try by winger Ailbhe Dowling – one of the emerging players along with Kathryn Dane, Linda Djougang and Oonagh Hynes – in that nail-biting semi-final success at Railway.
Sophie Spence’s two tries, coupled with a second half defensive shutout, were key to Belvedere’s 19-0 defeat of UL Bohemians in January, the only blemish on the Red Robins’ record. However, when they have their big guns available and get on a roll, Bohs are very difficult to stop with the likes of Niamh Briggs, Gillian Bourke, Niamh Kavanagh, Griffin and Fiona Hayes all wielding plenty of influence.
The match-up at half-back between the Briggs-Cronin combination and ‘Belvo duo Stapleton and Dane looks a fascinating one, while UL can rely on the well-oiled front row trio of Hayes, Bourke and Fiona Reidy, who helped Munster clinch the Interprovincial title against Leinster in December.
Notably, that deciding interpro game saw UL dominate Munster’s starting back-line, which included a lively back-three of Laura O’Mahony, Sheehan and Kavanagh, and the odd one out was scrum half Ellen Murphy from Belvedere.