Marist College Athlone 10
(Thomas Cotton, Tom Sheehan tries)
Sligo Grammar School 7
(Diarmaid O’Connell try, Mark Tempany con)
Kevin Egan at the Sportsground.
The Connacht Schools Junior Cup final has thrown up no end of close and dramatic encounters in recent years, but none were more nerve-wracking than the meeting of Marist College and Sligo Grammar School this afternoon, a thrilling contest which went the way of the Athlone school thanks to a Tom Sheehan try in the corner with just three minutes to play.
This was the fifth consecutive Schools Junior “A” Cup final to be decided by a single score or less, though the remarkable form of the Marist coming into this game suggested that Sligo Grammar School would do well to get anywhere close to the pre-match favourites.
47-7 against Garbally College and 59-0 against the Bish were their last two scorelines, but an incredible defensive effort from Sligo Grammar School made it very clear that there was going to be nothing like that in the Sportsground today.
The rugby played by the midlanders was very simple and direct, but devastatingly effective. Their tight five was impeccable at the unseen work in the ruck, which meant that turnover ball was almost impossible to secure from a Sligo perspective. The centre partnership of Thomas Cotton and Conor Dowling was the perfect mix of power and elusiveness, and Sheehan on the left wing was a real threat every time he got ball in hand.
When these two schools met in a Senior Cup semi-final a month ago, Sligo Grammar School picked up a fully-deserved win in the Marist due to their incredible front-up tackling and their impeccable discipline, and the same pattern repeated itself today with their juniors. The back row of Oscar O’Connor, Diarmaid O’Connell and Ambrose Devine got through a world of work, while Alan Lawlor and Harry Graham both had to deliver vital stops in one-on-one situations, and both players stepped up to the mark in style.
There wasn’t much space offered by the Marist defence either, and the sight of outhalf Conor Naughton killing a promising Sligo Grammar School attack with a wonderful wrap around tackle on Andrew Hewson proved that they weren’t going to concede easy ground either. However that was a relatively rare foray forward by the Grammar School, who spent the vast majority of the first half trying to protect their own try-line.
Having got to half-time with the game still scoreless, there was a visible increase in the Sligo side’s confidence after the break. Marist went right back on the attack after half time and almost broke through, only to be denied be another brave tackle from Lawlor to deny Sheehan, just when it looked like their line was opening up. Still they pressed forward, but with the line in sight, a rip tackle and run from Diarmiad O’Connell reprieved the danger.
60 seconds later, Sligo Grammar had brought play up to the Marist 22, with Ambrose Devine helping to force a penalty. Mark Tempany pushed his kick wide left, but now they had a foothold in an attacking position and weren’t about to relent. A powerful run from James Winters O’Donnell brought them right up to within five metres of the line again, and with a penalty advantage, Diarmiad O’Connell forced his way over.
Mark Tempany added the conversion, but Marist didn’t panic, and within four minutes, had undone most of the damage.
Their score was the perfect traditional try, with the forwards establishing dominance, earning a penalty, and then the backs stepped in to inject pace and make the chance count.
A quick tap penalty from Charlie O’Carroll sent Conor Naughton crashing forward, and the outhalf’s pass into the path of Thomas Cotton was every bit as good as the power and drive from the centre to finish off the move.
Another lovely piece of handling from the backs almost set up another similar score almost immediately, only for Conor Dowling’s pass to fly inches too far in front of Sheehan, meaning it spilled off the winger’s fingers before going out over the line.
Marist were still enjoying the lion’s share of possession, but the clock was beginning to become an issue. Sligo’s zest and commitment in their defensive effort was unrelenting, and even when the Marist finally did break through, it was only after knocking on the door, battering on the door, and eventually breaking it down – just about.
Eoin Naughton and Thomas Cotton were both involved in setting up Conor Naughton, who didn’t quite get across the line in the right corner, then Seán O’Donoghue and Tom Bourke took up the initiative as Marist worked through the phases and went back across the line again. It seemed like Bourke left it too late to spin the ball out to Sheehan with defenders converging, and as the winger tried to crash over the line with bodies piling in, the split second that Johnny Quinn took to assess the situation seemed to take forever.
That interminable second ended with a raised arm, elation for the Marist, and heartbreak for the Grammar school, as the try was awarded to make it 10-7.
There was still time for one last surge and Sligo Grammar weren’t found wanting, as a big lineout steal helped them get a final possession up around the Marist 22. They were awarded what looked like one kickable penalty but opted to play it short to O’Connell, who wasn’t able to break a tackle and ended up penalized for holding on.
If the story of the first 57 minutes was that of Sligo’s incredible defence, now that the Marist needed to make a stand at the death, they dug deep and produced the goods.
Seán O’Donoghue made a huge tackle to knock Ambrose Devine back just when looked like the big flanker might break through, and with the last play, forward pressure forced an errant pass off the base of the scrum, forcing Andrew Hewson to scramble backwards to gather possession.
With no support and Marist players piling in, one last penalty for holding on was the last act of a dramatic and memorable encounter that ended with an eighth ever Junior Cup title for Marist College, and their first since 2018.
Marist College: Seán O’Donoghue; Patrick Begley, Conor Dowling, Thomas Cotton, Tom Sheehan; Conor Naughton, Charlie O’Carroll; Seán Walshe, Eoin Naughton, Kailin Blessing; James Heaslip, Rian Claffey; Tom Bourke, O’Teaga Awhinawhi, Callum Kelly.
Replacements: Phillip Finnan for Begley (54 mins), Kyle Byrne for Heaslip (59 mins)
Sligo Grammar School: Alan Lawlor; Harry Graham, Dara Holmes, Andrew Hewson, Jacob Norris; Mark Tempany, Jack Draper; Kamsi Mojekwu, William Draper, James Winters O’Donnell; George Collins, Isaac Marsden; Ambrose Devine, Oscar O’Connor, Diarmaid O’Connell.
Replacements: Bobby Hanrahan for Holmes (54 mins)
Referee: Johnny Quinn