Jersey Reds set off to southern Ireland hoping to make history for their club by bringing the British & Irish Cup back to the Channel Islands.
The Reds play in the Greene King IPA Championship and achieved their best finish by coming fifth in English rugby's second tier this season. Now the team are focusing on some silverware to crown the season.
A brace of charter flights will be carrying the Jersey squad, coaching team and around 100 supporters across the English Channel and the Celtic Sea, with a number of Jersey ex-pats, players' families and other connections joining the throng. The Irish province may have bigger fish to fry, with a European Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens in Dublin on Saturday, but for the visitors Friday's game is the main event.
In five seasons in the B&I Cup to date, Jersey have been drawn previously against the A teams from Irish provinces Leinster and Ulster (on two occasions each) and Connacht, but have never previously met Munster 'A', who qualified for the knock-out stages as winners of pool 2. The Munstermen have subsequently had convincing wins over Ulster 'A' (26-3) and Ealing Trailfinders (25-9) to reach the final of a competition they won in 2012 by beating Cross Keys 31-12 in Cork. Munster previously reached the final in 2010 and lost 23-14 in Camborne to Cornish Pirates, where Reds' Head Coach Harvey Biljon was Assistant Coach at the time.
With a number of the current squad leaving Jersey at the end of this season, including five members of the starting pack who have signed for clubs in the Aviva Premiership, there is a collective desire to gain a trophy in the squad's final outing together. It's also the last match for Assistant Coach Alex Rae, who is moving back to England and will resume his playing career at former club Bedford next season.
The Reds' cup final line-up shows a reversion, in most cases, to the personnel who featured prominently in the 10-match winning run from January to April, which saw Jersey reach the verge of the Championship play-offs, as well as progressing to the B&I final.
Simon Kerrod and Jake Woolmore are the starting props, either side of hooker Joe Buckle. James Voss is selected at lock, one of just two players to retain a starting berth from last Saturday's league match against Richmond. With Dave McKern sidelined by a shoulder injury, Voss (pictured below) is rewarded for a robust showing in the win over Richmond, and will partner Pierce Phillips in the engine room.
In the Jersey back row, the familiar 'FGH' unit of skipper James Freeman and Gary Graham at flanker, plus Nick Haining at number 8, will take the field for their 16th match of the season together as a trio. Haining has featured in all 32 of the Reds' matches thus far this season, including three pre-season matches and the league match against London Welsh that was struck from the records.
Kieran Hardy and Bristol loanee Callum Sheedy are paired at half-back, Jordan Davies and Tongan international Apakuki Ma'afu resume their midfield partnership, and Nick Scott and George Watkins start on the wings. Ulsterman Ross Adair, an Irish under 19 international at both rugby and cricket, is selected at full-back, the only other survivor from the Richmond starting XV and getting the nod ahead of Jack Cuthbert.
Jersey's bench also has a familiar look, including the front row trio of Nick Selway, former Leinster player Sean McCarthy and Jake Armstrong. After a rare start for his 50th Reds' appearance last Saturday, another Tongan cap, Uili Kolo'ofa'i, returns to his established role as an impact replacement, with Max Argyle covering the back row. Jersey's longest-serving player, 25-year-old scrum-half Joel Dudley, is one of two back replacements alongside Lewis Robling. Among the unlucky backs to miss out are Brendan Cope and George Eastwell - both are recovering from suspected concussion following last weekend's game.
Having fallen at the semi-final stage of last year's B&I, the Reds began their 2016/17 cup campaign with a loss on Irish soil, defeated 19-6 by Ulster 'A' in Belfast. But since that set-back in October, Jersey recovered to top pool one after doing the double over Cardiff Blues Select and London Scottish, and getting the better of Ulster in the return match at St Peter. This meant a home quarter-final against Cornish Pirates, which ended 36-20 to the Reds, and then a 17-25 semi-final success against London Irish at the Madejski Stadium in Reading.
Friday's game in Cork has been described by some as the most significant in the history of Jersey RFC, which has roots stretching back to 1879. Certainly there have been few bigger, although reaching the Hampshire Cup Final on four occasions during the amateur era from 1970 to 2006 was a feather in the cap, as was the National Three Champions Cup success in 2010, when Jersey beat Ampthill 21-12 at Twickenham. In league terms, notable recent achievements have included the National Two promotion play-off win over Loughborough Students in 2011, and defeating formerly unbeaten league leaders London Irish - this season - and Worcester Warriors - in 2015. Not forgetting 'do-or-die' relegation tussles against Doncaster Knights (2013) and Bedford Blues (2014) to successfully preserve Championship status.
After flying back to Jersey on Saturday, the players and supporters will head back to the Clubhouse at St Peter and cheer on Jersey Reds Athletic in their final league match of the season, which sees the amateur side take on Henley Wanderers at 3pm. Attention will then switch to the final match of 2016/17, the Ipes Siam Cup against Guernsey Raiders on Saturday May 6th at St Peter.
Jersey Reds squad v Munster 'A' (A) - British & Irish Cup Final, Friday April 21st, Irish Independent Park, Cork; k-o 7.30pm
James Freeman (capt)
Nick Selway, Sean McCarthy, Jake Armstrong, Uili Kolo'ofa'i, Max Argyle; Joel Dudley, Lewis Robling.
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