By John O’Sullivan
The Connacht Junior Interprovincial side began their All Ireland Junior Interprovincial series with a 36-20, five tries to three, defeat to Ulster on Saturday in Castlebar.
Six Connacht clubs were represented in the starting line-up, as coached by Michael Harding, Buccaneers, Henry O’Toole, Connemara, and Pat Cunnigham, Creggs. The spread of talent among the coaching and playing personnel is reflective of the capabilities of those within the grass roots section of Connacht Rugby.
Unsurprisingly, League and Cup double winners Connemara provided the bulk of the starting team with seven starters. Runners up in both competitions, Creggs, provided four members of the line up; while Ballina, Sligo, Castlebar and Monivea contributed a player each.
With the remnants of Storm Hannah buffeting around the Castlebar pitch, ball handling skills were put under severe pressure. Visibly, the Ulster team were physically bigger than their Connacht counterparts and the elements suited their rudimental style of play better. Running in five tries to Connacht’s three, Ulster were value for their victory but the margin of the win was perhaps flattering to the Northern men.
Ulster lead 19-15 at half time, but Connacht – through a try from Creggs Brian Donoghue – took a 20-19 lead midway through the second period. However, a yellow card for Connemara’s Niall Staunton for a high tackle swung the game. With a man advantage, Ulster – with winger Tom Caesar to the fore – scored 17 unanswered points in the second period to take the victory.
People familiar with both Connemara and Creggs last season would know that their styles of play were both skill and handling oriented and logically, given that both clubs provided most of the starting line-up, Connacht would look to play with a similar intent.
Connacht electing to run the ball yielded a try with the game just over five minutes old. Connemara’s Henry O’Toole was the benefactor of a move containing his club team mates, Barry Gibbons and Marty Conneely, and touched down in the corner. The conversion was just wide, but Connacht’s opening salvo was a stylistic signal of intent for the rest of the game.
Ulster scrum half Lee Steenson, of Dromore RFC, was a thorn in Connacht’s side all afternoon, with his quick tap penalties a particular irritant for the hosts defence. It was from a quickly taken Steenson penalty that Ulster opened their try scoring account. After a few phases, hooker Matthew Coulter, of Ballyclare RFC, burrowed over from close range.
The scoring nature of the game was becoming tit for tat and Connacht soon retook the lead with a penalty through Ballina’s Craig McCormack before Ulster’s rapid winger Caesar crossed for his first try in what was proving to be enthralling opening to the game. Both sides would register further first half tries – Ulster through Connor McKee and Connacht through Niall Staunton after a powerful rolling maul – to leave the half time score at 19-15 to the visitors.
Connacht scored the last try of the half, with McCormack expertly converting from a difficult angle, and they carried this momentum into the second half. Aggressive and quick defensive line speed from Connacht resulted in Ulster spilling the ball in their own 22. Creggs second row Donoghue opportunistically picked up the fumbled ball and ran in for a try to give Connacht a solitary point lead at 20-19.
However, Donoghue’s effort would be Connacht’s last score of the afternoon. The scrum battle was an even affair in the first half, but Ulster gained ascendancy there in the second period and it provided them a platform – as well as Connacht’s yellow card – to put Connacht under pressure.
Caesar would cross for two more tries, which added to a long range penalty from full back Paul Armstrong of Clogher Valley RFC – who kicked four of Ulster’s five conversions – secured a bonus point victory for the Richard Boyd coached visitors.
Connacht’s coaching ticket and players alike will have plenty of positives to take going into the final round of games. Some of Connacht’s ball handling and intricate moves should stand them in good stead for the rest of the competition.
Connacht travel away to Leinster, at Wicklow R.F.C, next Saturday before hosting Munster at The Green, Creggs R.F.C, on Saturday May 11th.
Connacht: H. O’Toole (Connemara); M. Conneely (Connemara), C.McCormack (Ballina), D.McDonagh (Connemara)©, C. Carter (Castlebar); S. Dowd (Creggs), M.O’Toole (Connemara); TJ. Berry (Connemara), J. Brandon (Creggs), B. Diffley (Creggs); N. Staunton (Connemara), G. Ward (Monivea); C. Mitchell (Sligo), B. Gibbons (Connemara), A. Leech (Creggs)
Replacements: I. Staunton for C. Mitchell (17 mins), B. Donoghue for G. Ward (45 mins), R. Grenham for A. Leech (43 mins)
Ulster: P. Armstrong (Clogher Valley); O. Kirk (Ballyclare), J. McBride (Ballyclare), R. Reid (Ballyclare), T. Caesar (Portadown); D. Lytle (Dromore), L. Steenson (Dromore); C.McKee ( Grosvenor), J. Taylor (Portadown) , C. Tipping (CIYMS) ©; T. Woods (Ballymoney), R. Bingham (Dromore); G. Beattie (Enniskillen), M. Coulter (Ballyclare), G. Warrington (Enniskillen)
Referee: Eoghan Cross.