Connacht’s Heineken Junior Cup rugby followers were left gobsmacked and gaping over the weekend as both favourites crashed out of the competition.

It wasn’t all broken glass and beer-froth though, 1B wildcards Loughrea and a rejuvenated Galwegians were among those celebrating the Sunday upsets.

Monivea, consigned to the bridesmaid’s role against the visiting Tullamore in the All-Ireland Junior Cup only a fortnight ago, once again fell afoul of the rugby gods. The red-and-blacks must wonder what they have to do to after several seasons unable to secure the league and cup double, not to mention higher honours and senior rugby status?

Ballina on the other hand, arguably more-favoured to win their semi-final than Monivea, limped home from Loughrea with a four-point deficit that will likely linger well after the full-time whistle.

Loughrea outhalf Stephen Creaven was immense, and played a puppeteer’s role throughout orchestrating as gutsy a performance as Loughrea has managed this winter. In saying that, it was hardly a stroke of luck which won them the victory, Loughrea opening and closing the first quarter deep in Ballina territory.

Ballina, consummate professionals throughout, weathered several storms as they tried to secure fluid phases of possession with which to mount an offensive. Try as they might however, Loughrea failed to breach the Ballina defense. So good was the defence in parts, Loughrea runners found themselves isolated at the breakdown and suffered accordingly.

The first flash of excitement came from one such breakdown, and with the penalty in their favour Ballina failed to find touch with the clearance. Loughrea’s outsides were only too happy to oblige running it back with interest, but Ballina winger Francis Conroy snaffled an intercept, and tore off downfield for the opening score. Seven minutes in, five-nil up Ballina.

Ballina eight Aidan McNulty combined well with nine Michael Murphy to free fullback Kevin McCarron who carved off more valuable territory with ball-in-hand. Green wing Trevor Moore charged down a Creaven clearance attempt, and in the ensuing melee Ballina was adjudged to have impeded a Loughrea player. Creaven opted for the points to squeeze the deficit but sent it astray.

Five minutes later, Creaven atoned for his earlier shortfall with a well-snapped dropgoal to get within two points.

Creaven’s radar was off once more from wide out shortly after but made no such mistake with the next chance two minutes later to put the hosts ahead 6-5 at halftime.

Ballina tore into the their Junior1B counterparts from the restart whistle, Alex Lee one among many leading the frontline attack. Lee, having gotten the ball just beyond the Loughrea 22, bouldered his way to within 3m of the line. The ensuing passage yielded a line-out in prime position for Ballina, they won it, but handling farther out scuppered any chance of a five-pointer.

Creaven again featured slotting a penalty to push Loughrea four ahead. Not to be outdone, Ballina standouts McCarron, Murphy and McNulty combined well to surge out of their own and deep into Loughrea’s half.

Desperate defense from Loughrea gifted penalty opportunities for Ballina who opted to scrummage their way to the scoreboard. Finally, Conroy posted the points and the deficit narrowed again to one point, Ballina 8-9 down. Creaven’s first half kicking woes plagued Conroy in the second, Ballina missing a long-ranger 10 minutes later.

A “late” tackle under pressure hurt Ballina as the clearance took the Loughrea lineout to within 5m of the Ballina tryline.

Resolute and diehard defense, so characteristic of the game to date, again dominated the final stages. From a ruck under the Ballina posts after a concerted and prolonged assault on the goal-line, Creaven settled into the pocket and had a second snap at the posts. Murphy’s ever-present green jersey blocked the attempt and the mad scramble continued. Ballina faltered finally and pushed the letter too far, giving Creaven the luxury of a penalty shot close in.

He made no mistake.

Ballina managed one last-ditch foray into enemy territory but time expired just shy of the 22m. The three short blasts on the whistle brought further volume from the healthy home crowd. Loughrea meet Galwegians, over Easter Weekend, at The Sportsground in the final.

Date and time to be confirmed.

For Galwegians’ victory over Monivea…

Loughrea: Darren Griffin, Paul Wilson, Aidan Duane, Michael Martyn, Daragh Mooney, Stephen Creaven, Greg Glynn, Ronan Kilkenny, Daniel Barrett, Chris McDermott, Seamus Clancy, Mark Mullins, Artjon Sitars, William Cullinane, Josh Hillas, Pat Lyons, William Kelly, Oisin Togher, Johnny O’Loughlin, Dainel Africano.

Ballina: Kevin McCarron, Francis Conroy, Trevor Moore, Michael Allen, Niall O’Malley, Andrew Moynihan, Michael Murphy, Paul Newell, Richard Kelly, Alex Lee, Connor Forde, Andrew West, Orrie Collins, Phillip Timoney, Aidan McAnulty, Ciaran Melvin, David Rowe, John Keaveney, Mark Healy, Cormac Quinn.


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