Highfield set sights high
AIL DIVISION 1B
FOLLOWING three promotions in just five seasons, Cork side Highfield are set for a major leap forward when they begin their All-Ireland League Division 1B campaign against Malone at Woodleigh Park on Saturday.
Considering they found themselves in the fourth-tier of Irish club rugby as recently as April 2016, there might be a perception from the outside that the Leesiders will struggle to scale the same heights as they did in previous years.
Nevertheless, instead of adopting a pessimistic outlook, club captain Fintan O’Sullivan has revealed Highfield have set themselves an ambitious target for the new campaign.
It certainly helps that Highfield have returned with the nucleus of the 2018/19 squad – which finished 10 points clear of Munster counterparts Cashel on their way to claiming the Division 2A title.
“We feel like we’re there or thereabouts with most of them. Banbridge, Armagh, Malone, Old Wesley, they all came from 2A. Lads come and go, but the guts of the team is probably still there,” O’Sullivan asserted.
“The last five years we got back-to-back promotions. Came second, came second and and came first last year. We’re not really used to just being mid-table. We’re kind of thinking top-four, minimum.
“I know a lot of people don’t back us. We always back ourselves, which is the main thing. Everyone keeps telling us that it’s a big step, but I think we’re ready for it.”
Navigating Highfield’s voyage through the domestic ranks has been player-coach Tim Ryan, who came to prominence in the middle of the last decade at his native Munster.
While opportunities were limited thanks to the presence of John Hayes and Tony Buckley, he featured for the province in their narrow defeat to New Zealand in November 2008 at Thomond Park.
His performance impressed then-Toulon head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who brought him to France for the 2009/10 Top 14 campaign. Subsequent spells followed at Newcastle Falcons, Cavalieri Prato and Newport Gwent Dragons, before he eventually returned home in 2014.
With his time in the professional game coming to an end, an opportunity at Woodleigh Park – where he started out as an underage prodigy – presented itself. As O’Sullivan explains, he hasn’t looked back since.
“We had a coach who left and I think Tim was 30, 31. He was kind of falling out of the professional scene. I think someone approached him, ‘would you have any interest in coaching as player/coach?’. He came out from being a tighthead with Newport Gwent Dragons to playing number eight for us! I’d say a couple of teams were going ‘oh no’.
“Even now, he’s 35. He’s older and he’s not in as good a shape and all that, but he still plays and he’s one of the best players on the pitch. He’s been brilliant for the club really. He’ll have a legacy there for sure, which is good.”
Though Cork Constitution have consistently flown the flag for the county in the upper echelons of the league, they are now receiving some much-needed competition on that front. UCC retained their top-flight status courtesy of a play-off victory over Old Wesley in May, with Highfield now just a single division below their big-city rivals.
Despite their recent frustrations, Dolphin will hope to replicate Highfield as they kick-start their own bid for Division 2A supremacy. Sunday’s Well and Midleton complete the list of Cork clubs at the senior grade, which O’Sullivan believes can only bode well for the future.
“When I was 16, 17, I remember going to Con and Dolphin down in Musgrave Park. That’s the game, there’s no one else. Now you’re going down to the Mardyke and watching Con and UCC.
“We went from the bottom of senior rugby and we’re almost there now. We’re just keeping the head down and ploughing on in the meantime.”
Before Highfield can worry about the prospect of a local league derby with Con or UCC, they need to negotiate a successful path through the second-tier. Given Malone narrowly pipped them to promotion at the end of the 2017/18 term, they will be determined to get one over on their northern opponents this weekend.
“Malone is our first fixture at home. We’re looking forward to that as well. We’ve met them a few times before. Should be interesting, to say the least,” O’Sullivan added.