Marist Athlone secured the Supermac’s Connacht Schools Senior League and Cup double courtesy of December and March finals finesse.

Coach Mick Loftus was typically circumspect about the magnitude of this achievement, but a tiny smirk betrayed the tough veneer, Loftus only too aware history had long toyed with the Midland mob.

“I guess, it’s well, you know what it is. It’s…yeah. It’s pretty good.”Gramslide

Loftus’ charges were no strangers to success having hoisted silverware earlier this winter, but the last time Marist claimed Cup honours was in 1977. That bogey no longer looms, Wednesday’s victory further sweetened by the fact Sligo Grammar featured opposite.gramx4

“To do it is a big ask, the double doesn’t happen very often. But to do it against a decorated rugby college, one of Connacht’s finest, well it’s thrown us right on the middle of the map. We’re now one of Connacht’s “rugby” strongholds,” he said after the game.

Of the match itself, it was a titanic struggle of men and might, no better characterised than by those leading. Grammar skipper Thomas Ferrari is part of the First XV furniture these days, one of the most capped premier schoolboy footballers in the province. He has busted, bruised and broken himself on near enough to every ground in the Connacht catchment, and did himself (and his team) justice on Wednesday.

gramx6Machine-cut as a mobile front-rower, Ferrari played out this final (and the December league stoush) in the back-row, and looked every bit as useful there as any on the paddock. While he spent much of his afternoon defending a well-oiled Athlone engine room, his ball-carrying deep in Marist territory drew three and four defenders and he was unfortunate not to ground one over the line.

Opposite him was the always-safe and oft-devastating Robbie Henshaw, (13).

His winter has been one to remember, peppered with provincial honours and international caps, a league title and follow-up cup victory. Despite various under-age call-ups beyond the Supermac’s Connacht Schools competition, he looked every bit a livewire schoolboy come full-time, relishing the win and the realisation of a dream which started three years ago.gramx3

Defensively, Marist had the edge throughout, denying extra inches come contact time. They too asserted more control in the midfield, Henshaw’s right arm proving meddlesome in broken play, his reach alone keeping would be tacklers at bay. Using it several times in the same phase, Henshaw’s piston said in not-so-many-words “if you’re going to tackle me, you best do it properly.” It is a rarity in any grade to see ball-carriers dictate the terms of the tackle, and on Wednesday Henshaw was very much in charge.

Ably-backed by man mountain Ryan Sheridan the pair of them comprised a major problem for the Grammar brains trust.

Sligo needed to be at their best. In set-piece, they were. Scrums gave little to either side, except clean (but slow) ball, and lineouts were disappointing for both sides.

Mar8The most even match-up of the day was at the back of the scrum, Grammar nine Enda Gavin orchestrated all distribution with a wisdom belying his 17 years, and Marist’s Robert Ashe every bit the little general opposite. While they never met head on, each showed serious mettle against hulking opposition and would have drawn little if any criticism for their respective performances.

Marist opened their account seven minutes in, Kevin Cooper scorched through fractured defence from 12m out cutting back on the angle to score 18m in from the right hand touch. The kick went astray. Their second try (from Cooper’s brother Brian) came late in the first half, again on the 15m line, albeit the other side of the pitch, slick hands and superior numbers the telling factor.Ferr1

Counting against Sligo was a poor goalkicking performance from the usually-reliable Colm Egan. He sent two wide in the first half, and on winning a confidence-boosting penalty “gimme” 16m from the posts in line with the left upright bizarrely sent it wide. It didn’t get any better for Egan shortly after when headgeared second-rower Diarmaid O’Dowd-Hill beat two, drew two and gifted a short ball to Egan with enough pace to at least break the line if not take him the four or five steps to the tryline, and he spilled it short of the contact.

Too many errors stunted Sligo continuity, and a failure to adequately cater to Marist’s dangermen hindered Grammar’s opportunities to stretch tiring defence.

Marist made fewer mistakes, surrendered territory on occasion preferring possession instead, and trusted their heavies to hang on to it. And hang on to it they did. Whereas Athlone’s superbacks shone sporadically, Wednesday’s victory came in large part from the executive engine room which performed anonymouslymari7

– but effectively – from the opening whistle to the very end. A complete Marist performance from one to eight (plus subs), stifled any real Sligo opportunity beyond third and fourth phase.

That said, with a Supermac’s junior league title, and a cup final berth in the replay, Sligo’s First XV glory days may return soon enough.

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