Connemara Return to the Summit

by‘s Rob Murphy

Tension and high drama were in plentiful supply in Clifden on St Patrick’s Day as Connemara out half Shane Sweeney snatched a last gasp victory over Ballina at the Monastery Field to secure the Connacht League title in front of a huge home crowd.

The 12-11 victory most certainly didn’t go to the pre game script as Ballina arrived in determined mood and thanks to a proficient and accurate effort at the breakdown turned the final day league tie into a titanic tussle between a very nervous Connemara and a Mayo side with a point to prove.

The men in black will want to forget this performance as quickly as possible but even in what was arguably their weakest display during the 14 round league campaign, the attributes that brought the league title to the west coast were clear to see, resilience, defensive technique and efficiency.

For Ballina, the game was simply about pride as they were all but certain of filling the relegation play off spot beforehand. They came determined to show their worth and left onlookers convinced of their capabilities of competing with the best, especially at the breakdown and in the area of game management.

The visitors scored first through a Kevin McCarron penalty and hit the post with a second penalty before Shane Sweeney levelled the match. Connemara led 6-3 at half time but only before the Ballina full back hit the post a second time with a penalty and by the 50 minute mark the home side were leading 9-3 and the home crowd sensed that the league title was just one score from being secured.

Yet after a month that involved this fixture being postponed twice, home advantage being reversed and points being deducted from Ballina, the Mayo men seemed determined to make their mark on the field and off the back of a brilliant back row performance inspired by Richard Morrow but aided superbly by Fergal Tully and Laurence Leonard, the men in green roared back into the contest.

Connacht Junior Interprovincial squad player coach Michael Murphy was the key man in the contest. From the scrum half position he orchestrated everything for his side, ensuring that the game was played on Ballina terms and keeping an increasingly anxious home side on the back foot.

The sin binning of replacement scrum half Michael O’Toole on 62 minutes firmly turned the tide towards Ballina with Alex Quinn scoring soon afterwards in the corner and Kevin McCarron desperately unlucky to hit the post for a third time with the conversion.

At 9-8, Connemara still led and when O’Toole returned, the task seemed more at hand. A surging break for Dave McDonagh almost led to the match clinching try but a penalty for not releasing after the tackle relieved pressure and minutes later Ballina had a second penalty just inside the home half that McCarron expertly slotted.

The sense of despair around the ground didn’t permeate onto the pitch for the home side who won the restart and went on the attack. It earned them a 79th minute penalty but Sweeney failed to find the distance on that one.

Seconds later they were back again and with an advantage accruing, Sweeney went for the most audacious drop goal you are likely to see at provincial league level to rescue the win and with it, the league title.

It was a day where composure deserted the home side for most of the game but returned when it matter most. The mark of champions. They will look back with a critical eye on this contest but Ballina’s role in disrupting them cannot be underestimated and with the likes of Barry Gibbons and TJ Berry working tirelessly in defence all day, they hung in the contest for long enough to get the job done.

Westport native Eddie Walsh has done a tremendous job in 20 short months to steady the ship in the west coast club after their 2013 relegation from the All Ireland league. He likes to joke that assistant coach and club stalwart Gerry King embellished squad numbers a little when recruiting him for the job during that summer.

On his first night of training last season just seven faces stood staring back at him as the club began life back in the provincial league ranks. By the end of the 2013/14 campaign a young emerging side had won the Junior Plate and the Cawley Cup as well as qualifying for the top four.

That was the platform, this season brought the rewards as the club beat Monivea home and away in the league action and lost only the once in 14 outings (23-22 away to Corinthians). They would have wrapped things up more comfortably but for Monivea’s propensity to pick up bonus points yet at season’s end they’ve got the result.

The Round Robin qualifiers await. The Clfiden men will be heavy underdogs but with nothing to lose, they’ll prove a handful for Clonmel away (March 28th), Instonians at home (April 11th) and Dundalk at home (April 18th). Big crowds and high quality rugby have returned to the Monastery Field. The trophies are stacking up too.


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