Gort CS 19
(Barry Cunniffe, Jackson Flanagan (2) tries; Calum Prendergast two cons)
St. Raphael’s Loughrea 5
(Jack Colohan try)
Kevin Egan at the Sportsground.
The value of old-fashioned forward power was in full evidence this afternoon when Gort Community School crowned a memorable campaign by knocking over local rivals St. Raphael’s of Loughrea in the first of this afternoon’s Connacht Schools Junior Cup finals, the “C” decider.
Right from the opening kick-off, St. Raphael’s lock Cian Conway fielded the ball and straight away looked to bring their backs into the game, moving it through the hands and trying to stretch the field as wide as possible. The tone had been set by St. Raphael’s, and it was one they were happy to continue throughout the game.
Gort too were happy to run the ball, but they realised quickly that their strength was in the tight exchanges, popping passes to straight-line runners driving hard at the inside channels.
Conway and his second row colleague Josh Maloney tried to carry the fight to the Gort pack and they enjoyed plenty of success in the lineout in particular, but the scrum exchanges were being dominated by the pack in black, with props Harry Howley and Aaron McGann the driving force for the South Galway school.
Flankers Barry Cunniffe and John Durkan had early attempts to power over the St. Raphael’s line but some superb goal-line defence kept the scoreboard from moving, while at the other end of the field, a counter-attack that ended with Ronan Bowes saving his school with a strong last-ditch tackle to force Adam Keane over the sideline within ten metres of the Gort line.
Most of the early play was in front of St. Raphael’s posts however, and the relentless pressure finally told when Barry Cunniffe blocked down a clearance and was able to pick up the loose ball and saunter over the line for the game’s first score. Calum Prendergast duly added the points from the conversion, and at this stage it looked like Gort might win with plenty to spare.
Effective as their power and depth was, there was a noticeable element of clever game-management about St. Raphael’s play, epitomized by outhalf Jack Quinn. This kept them in contention in a game where they weren’t quite on the same level in terms of grunt and grind.
One of the smaller players on the field, Quinn mixed up his kicking, running and passing very well and that helped Loughrea to work their way up the field and play some rugby in advanced areas of the field. Two penalties in the left corner of the pitch set up a series of phases that eventually opened up the Gort defence and created the hole for Jack Colohan to drive through for their first score, reducing the gap to 7-5 with eight minutes to go to half-time.
Gort’s reply to this concession was swift and decisive.
They earned a penalty which Prendergast nudged a few feet wide of the target, but from the restart, team captain Jackson Flanagan picked up the ball and saw a disorganized defence, so he quickly took advantage. A sharp injection of pace and one good sidestep saw him break through the lines and touch down under the posts, to leave Prendergast with a much simpler kick this time around.
St. Raphael’s strategy to try and work their way back into the game was simple – lean heavily on Cian Conway to break the gain line, take defenders out of the game and create space, and trust in the hands of the backs to try and force their way over, and there were several instances where this almost bore fruit.
Josh Maloney and Conor Spellman also carried the ball well at times, but that simple ability to run into the tackle and still fall over the gain line, creating front foot ball with little risk of a turnover, simply wasn’t there.
Whether it was their front row, back row, or even three-quarter line players Dara Burke and Gabriel Castor, both of which showed plenty of pace when they got the chance to move the ball, Gort had too many players with the ability to put their colleagues on the front foot.
Leading the way at all times however was captain and number eight Jackson Flanagan, and it was no surprise that he crashed over for his second try of the game 12 minutes into the second half
This turned out to be the only score of the second half, ensuring that the final quarter was quite comfortable for the large and boisterous Gort crowd in support, as their team had a secure lead to protect.
Conway, Quinn, Colohan and Adam Keane continued to press for a breakthrough right up to the end, forcing a series of penalties that led to two Gort yellow cards, but they couldn’t find their way across the whitewash as Gort’s defensive line held firm, showing that on and off the ball, their title of Connacht Junior Cup champions was fully-deserved.
Gort CS: Ronan Bowes; Gabriel Castor, Dara Burke, Charlie Kelly, David Andrews; Pádraig Canole, Calum Prendergast; Harry Howley, Gavin Whelan, Aaron McGann; Roibin Hussey, Sam Guilfoyle; Barry Cunniffe, John Durkan, Jackson Flanagan.
Replacements: Seán Mahon for Durkan (6 mins), Harry Mullins for Cunniffe (20 mins), Jamie Molloy for Andrews (half-time), Dylan O’Malley for Howley (56 mins)
St. Raphael’s: Cian Duignan; Adam Keane, Donnacha Campbell, Jack Colohan, Luke Marjanovic; Jack Quinn, Liam Kilraine; Jake Poland, Joe Gallagher, Rory Dillon; Cian Conway, Josh Maloney; Arthur Kelly, Dan Doheny, Conor Spellman.
Replacements: Shaun Sweeney for Kilraine (half-time), Seán Cahill for Duignan (42 mins), Eoin Reilly for Colohan (56 mins). Michael O’Neill for Kelly (56 mins)
Referee: Stephen Gregory