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Connacht drama begins again

Knock on picRAGING BULLS Westport’s Paul Jennings makes the hard yards during last season’s Heineken Connacht Junior Cup Final against Corinthians. Pic: Ray Ryan

Connacht Junior drama begins again

IT seems to get earlier every year doesn’t it? Next weekend, the second Sunday of September, the Connacht Junior League kicks off with a full round of fixtures in Division 1. 
The over-crowded top division requires 15 rounds of matches over the course of the eight month season and that’s on top of the Junior Cup, Cawley Cup, All Ireland Junior Cup (Westport and Sligo), and for the league winners, All Ireland League qualifiers in April.
A minimum of 17 games in eight months – or in Westport’s case last season 23 games in that period including eight in the last five weeks. This is total madness for an amateur sport. The Connacht professional team played 27 games last season – and they had an extra month!
Thankfully the powers-that-be have realised this can’t go on and put in place a structure that looks to be a viable long-term solution. Five teams will be relegated from Division 1 this year to form a new Division 1B next season with the six Junior 1 teams currently playing in Division 2.
For now we will look at how the 16 teams are shaping up, taking a look at next weekend’s opening round games. First up it’s a Mayo derby with Ballinrobe taking on Ballina. The Robe are in confident mood these days as they are beginning to reap the rewards of the creation of a second team in the club two seasons ago. 
Ballina finished fourth last season and are looking for an improvement. Kiwi coach Gary Stevens has left and a new player coach from South Africa, Sean Van Rensberg, will take the reins. Daniel Carribine will captain the side while David Newman remains at centre. However, Willie Ruane and Ray Sheehan have gone back into retirement – for now at least.  A strong prop is also needed if they are to challenge.
In Cloondeash, Castlebar will take on an improving Tuam on opening day.  The Mayo side have slipped down the pecking order at an alarming rate in two years. Seamus King is now at the helm but he must plan without a number of key players including South African centre Darren Claasens who has joined Young Munster.
Last season was the first in four years that Monivea didn’t annex a trophy and with coach Richard Evans now at Corinthians, Dan McFarland has come on board as player-manager, and is determined to regain their crown. While they won’t run away with it this time, having Westport, Ballina and Buccaneers at home gives them a real edge.
Sligo missed out on the title in a play-off to Westport last season. A heartbreaking drop goal cost them but they are back again this year looking for redemption. Pat Curran and Mark Foley are now at the helm and will be a strong partnership.  Kiwi, Jordan Farrington, at out-half will be a threat while Peter Mullin will captain the side.
Michael Lee is now in charge at Corrib. Galway footballer Cormac Bane, his brother Killian, and Barry Lee will all be key members of the panel but not until Caherlistrane’s involvement in the GAA championship ends. Mike Monahan is back at full back, Stephen Conlisk in the centre and there is talk of a return for second row Frank Heneghan. 
Westport face a nightmare opening to their title defence away to everyone’s dark horses, Loughrea who are coached by Kevin Tierney. The Bulls have lost prop Stephen Keane to Connemara and second row Liam Scahill to Galwegians but after that it’s all the same in terms of personnel. 
However, the options are there to cover those two and in John Paul Walsh, Marius Bosman, Peter Corcoran, Paul Jennings, Mike Heneghan and Sean O’Boyle they have the key components.  Sunday will reveal how strong their challenge will be.
Here is my guess at how the table will look come late February (last five to be relegated): Monivea (winners), Ballina, Westport, Buccaneers, Loughrea, Sligo, OLBC, Corrib, Ballinrobe, Corinthians, Castlebar, Tuam (R), Creggs (R), Ballinasloe (R), Galwegians (R), UCG (R).

“So, Connacht are in top form already then? Well, not entirely.”

MICHAEL BRADLEY’S Connacht kicked off their Magners League campaign on Friday night in the south of Scotland with an impressive 29-15 victory over a much vaunted new look Border Reivers. 
The win puts Connacht on the front foot straight away with a farcical run of six homes games to come starting on Friday night with the Ospreys at 6.30pm.
So, Connacht are in top form already then? Well, not entirely. The westerners were not totally convincing on Friday and will be well aware that improvements are needed if they are to overcome the Ospreys who have All Black legend Justin Marshall pulling the strings at scrum-half.
The back three of Matt Mostyn, Darren Yapp and Conor McPhillips will all need to find better form on Friday.  Mostyn, uncharacteristically, made five unforced errors in the game, three handling blunders under little pressure and two very poor open play kicks into the hands of the opposition.
On the wing Yapp and McPhillips were, by their own high standards, fairly anonymous in attack and both made some key errors on defence. There is much better to come from them and with last year’s joint top try scorer Keith Matthews and five try pre-season flyer Daniel Riordan on the bench, the competition for places is intense.
The other cause for worry will be the front row. Gavin Kerr gave Stephen Knoop a painful lesson while young 22 year old Brett Wilkinson had a baptism of fire at loosehead up against Scottish international Bruce Douglas.   Wilkinson and Michael Diffley will garner a lot of experience in the coming weeks while Ray Hogan is injured.
The positives were clear for all to see. The centre partnership of man of the match Gavin Williams and Paul Warwick looks good; it would have to be as the Hearty/Matthews combination will be hard to better. Williams was a powerhouse with ball in hand but his defence needs to improve.
Mark McHugh was outstanding as were Andrew Farley, John Muldoon, David Gannon and debutant Adrian Flavin who hit eight perfect line-outs from nine throws. However, one final worry is only once did Connacht develop a quality attack from one of those perfect throws.  Four points in the bag with lots to ponder.  Encouraging. 

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