Forced to watch the national college rugby heavyweights slug it out for CUSAI supremacy in past years, NUIG’s women passed up undercard tickets this winter for a spot in the ring.
After dealing to Carlow IT in Dangan and beating heavily-favoured UCC two from two (including a 15-strong bare minimum midweek tour to Cork), NUIG and UL contested two round-robin fixtures and a feature league final in five weeks to determine the 2013 champion.
Drawing the Dangan fixture 17-17 and going down 22-20 in Limerick, the grand final loomed as a Battle Royale. Rarely in the past several years has the Limerick sports academy been pushed so close back-to-back but the third and final instalment played out in exhilarating fashion, albeit five points in favour of the reigning champions, 12-7.
NUIG started strong in the final scoring first late in the opening spell through standout skipper and blindside Lou Fitzgerald. Katie Kilbane posted the extras to go 7-nil ahead at the break.
Blustery and buffeting winds swung in UL’s favour for the second half although NUIG forced the hosts to defensive extremes for the first 10 minutes. Two bizarre over-the-line decisions denied NUIG two crucial tries, and defensive lapses from the touring maroons at the other end allowed UL a pair and, in turn, the title.
The first NUIG CUSAI competition victory in November over UCC set a benchmark which carried the 2012/13 squad in good stead on the domestic front too in the Connacht club competition.
Boasting a coaching line-up featuring Munster and Irish internationals in Nicola Scully, Helen Brosnan and Fiona Hayes, as well as Six Nations and Irish Sevens superstar Ali Miller on the paddock, NUIG ran out on Cork’s homeground with 15 bruised and broken bodies barely able for a bus ride let alone 80minutes in boots, with no sideline cover.
Niamh Ni Dhroma and Heather Cary combined well in the first quarter probing (and breaching) the 10/12 channel off set piece, captain Fitzgerald and stalwart scrumhalf Hannah Smith both causing problems in broken play.
While newcomer Edel McMahon showed serious mettle on defence, as did Smith in cover, it was Rita Breen who clinched the game at the death bringing down a rampant Miller (with two tries under her belt at that stage) on the 22m and forcing the turnover on the stroke of fulltime.
Back in Connacht, NUIG was unable to tip up last year’s league champions Sligo pushing them to within 12 on the first occasion and seven in the second, but beat Tuam by the narrowest of margins (two points), kept the ever-improving Castlebar at bay in a friendly and closed out Carrick-on-Shannon.
Two points separated the students from Buccaneers in the first game 5-3, Buccaneers eventually going on to win the Connacht League over heavily-favoured Sligo.
While the squad boasted a membership upwards of 50 in number throughout the winter with training sessions regularly comprising 20-plus, rarely could coaches Simon Lawless and Luke O’Donnell name a run-on XV with any consistency one week to the next.
Sporting commitments elsewhere, injuries and illness, and a social and student schedule which often took precedence over competition fixtures was disappointing not only for the brains trust selecting but the 10 or 12-strong solid core of midweek regulars.
Had rugby rated higher on several players’ personal priority list 2012/13’s NUIG season would have likely secured serious silverware and etched this winter’s line-up indelibly across the college’s (and club’s) history annals.
Unfortunately, a late season Arctic squall negated any NUIG opportunity to mount a CUSAI Cup challenge at the Belfast-hosted 2013 Intervarsities where snow and frost forced a last-minute calendar change.
Socially, the side was without peer. Where they carved up backlines and dropped opposition ballcarriers on gameday, they cut shapes on dancefloors and chopped pints with equal enthusiasm on a weekly (if not daily) basis in between fixtures.
College football remains at the mercy of conflicting schedules and high player turnover from one winter to the next but this season’s contingent excelled in spite of those setbacks and should, if it retains a dozen of this semester’s frontline selections, contest for honours both within and beyond Connacht borders after Christmas.
Coaches Lawless and O’Donnell wish to thank all those who trained and played at any and all stages this season (including several talented and enthusiastic foreign blow-ins), squad co-ordinator Hannah Smith and captain Louise Fitzgerald for their leadership on and off the paddock, the College Bar and The Bentley for their invaluable contributions, Farrell Travel for transport assistance, Connacht Rugby and National University College – Galway.
2012/13 prizewinners – CUSAI(comp) Player of the Year : Rita Breen. CUSAI Most Improved : Edel McMahon. CBIRFU(comp) Player of the Year : Hannah Smith. CBIRFU Most Improved : Elizabeth McKeever.