The Ashbourne players will be hoping to claim a second Provincial Towns Cup for the club when they take on Tullow in Sunday’s final at Co Carlow RFC.

Ashbourne ready to tackle the Tullow Tank in cup final

It's not easy to win the Provincial Towns' Cup, one of the oldest competitions in Irish rugby. The competition kicked off in 1889 and is very difficult to win.

Ashbourne RFC have only managed to end up in the winners' enclosure once, back in 2014, when they famously got the better of Kilkenny.

Even then the Meath side didn't claim the coveted, distinctive-looking trophy the easy way. They had to scale the summit by a torturous, protracted, nerve-shedding route, narrowly overcoming their opponents 6-3 and only after extra-time.

In all the Meath club have only reached three finals. In 1999 they lost to Navan 18-10. Apart from 2014 there was an appearance in the final two years ago. That too was torturous for the Ashbourne players and supporters, although in a different way. They lost 32-6 on a day when nothing went right for them in Cill Dara RFC's home ground.

Now Ashbourne are back in the final. This time they will be travelling down to Co Carlow's home ground for a showdown with Tullow RFC, the team which includes a certain Sean O'Brien, the former Irish international and Lions player who is also known, ominously for opponents, as the 'Tullow Tank.' The game takes place on Sunday, kick-off 3pm.

Co Carlow hasn't been chosen at random to host the final. This year they celebrate their 150th anniversary on the road, a marvellous achievement that deserves some sort of formal recognition. There's something Co Carlow RFC they can be proud of. They have won the Towns' Cup 12 times, more than any other club, having played in 16 finals.

Ashbourne RFC have booked three buses to take the faithful down on Sunday to the venue on the edge of Carlow town and they will be hoping they can bring the coveted, venerable old trophy back to their clubhouse out Milltown way - but the odds are against the team doing just.

Ashbourne and Tullow have met twice in the league this season. The Meath side won the first tie at Milltown, 29-28. In the return fixture Tullow claimed the spoils 29-22. Results which suggest there is, indeed, little between the teams.

However, there's a further statistic that gives O'Brien & Co the edge and makes them favourites ahead of Sunday's showdown. It is the fact that Tullow finished fourth in the Leinster League Div 1A table while Ashbourne were second last and lost out in an Leinster League Div 1A/Div 1B relegation/promotion play-off to Athy.

That all hints at a turbulent season for Ashbourne although as their great club stalwart and Leinster official Bill Duggan points out it was a campaign with some high points too.

"We started off very well, won our first three games then fell away, suffered a few injuries, the team couldn't buy a lucky bounce. Then, towards the end of the season we started showing some form, in our last four league games we picked up 11 points including a great win over Seapoint, who we stopped from winning the league. Then we got a five point bonus point win over Bective which jumped us ahead of Gorey. In fairness to the lads they kept grafting away."

That late flourish suggests Ashbourne are starting the find their best form at just the right time - at least in the context of them winning the Town's Cup - but any such optimism has to be tempered by the fact that Tullow finished fourth in Div 1A with 35 points, 10 more than Ashbourne.

There are other factors that mitigate against the Meath side. Duggan points out the Ashbourne team contains just eight players from the side that got to the 2014 Towns' Cup decider - a massive turnover of personnel that indicates the kind of rebuilding work that has been going on in the club. The team is guided by head coach Eoin O'Sullivan, who played with MU Barnhall. He is assisted by two seasoned Ashbourne RFC warriors, Donal Crotty and Joey Sparza.

Ashbourne is a team made up of experienced troops such as captain Gavin Kennedy, Mark Behan, Ciaran Roche, Frank Keegan and James McCaghy while Danny Colgan, Sean Lambe and Patrick Dillon are among the younger contingent who have been brought in to add some youthful exuberance. Such a mix of youth and experience can often prove very effective.

On the way to the final Ashbourne defeated Portarlington (47-10), Cill Dara (24-17) and, in the semi-final, Wicklow (24-22) with Colgan coming off the bench to get a match-clinching try.

Tullow have only ever won the Towns' Cup twice - and while Ashbourne will make it difficult for them on Sunday the formbook suggests the Tullow Tank and his colleagues will complete their hat-trick of triumphs in one of Irish rugby's oldest competitions.