RUGBY CONNACHT JUNIOR CUP SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW
BALLINROBE have been given very little time to savour their outstanding quarter-final upset of Galwegians last weekend as their semi-final clash with Monivea has been brought forward to this coming Sunday.
The decision to bring the fixture forward was made to allow Monivea maximum preparation time for the AIB All-Ireland league qualifiers which begin on March 25.
The quick turnaround is not ideal but neither side will benefit from it either and this week was more a case of putting the head down and getting on with preparations.
Ballinrobe are rank outsiders for this contest. In fact if there was spread betting to be found on this semi-final the bookmakers would probably be giving Ballinrobe a handicap of around plus 14 points.
Monivea have just been crowned league champions. They won 13 of 14 games and scored an average 28 points, conceding just five per game. Only Crosshaven in the All-Ireland Cup and Tuam in the league have managed to beat them this season.
That 19-16 defeat to Tuam in the Castle Grounds will play on the minds of both sides on Sunday. For Ballinrobe it will act as proof that Monivea are not invincible and can be rattled. However, the homeside will look at it as a warning of what can go wrong if they take their foot of the pedal.
Ballinrobe coaches Kieran Biggins and Phil Herewini have a lot to ponder this week but will be feeling relaxed ahead of the contest. Their team relishes the underdog tag and Biggins is confident his team won’t be overawed even though he is realistic about the magnitude of the challenge.
“It’s going to be a tough ask, there is no obvious area where they are weak,“ he told The Mayo News. “They seem to be strong in every position. That said we will have to find a way to attack and we are going to give it everything.
“Training has been going very well this week and the lads are really up for this game. For the first time in a long time almost our entire squad is available to us bar Shane Biggins who is out for the season.”
Monivea are stronger this year up front than at any point in the last five years where they have nabbed four titles. Player/coach, Dan McFarland, has given their forward unit that little bit extra in recent months. They work well together with the set-pieces providing them with a solid and potent attacking platform.
The front row is one of the few that won’t fear Ballinrobe’s powerful pack with Noel Burke, Pat Devane and Eamonn McLoughlin all on top of their game. Liam Mitchell and Eoin Rooney are two other stars in a pack where all eight are playing well.
In the backline Monivea are dangerous in every area with centres Mike Concarr and Ian Murphy in top form. An explosive back three is led by full-back Kevin Higgins who could cause Ballinrobe untold damage if they kick to him in open play.
It’s not just Monivea who are in peak form at this stage and in truth the contrast between Ballinrobe’s early season and current form is frightening. The south Mayo men have a special affinity with the Junior Cup and it always brings out the best in them.
Biggins explained the transformation.
“We have just put in a lot of hard work in the last few weeks and months. We have put in three nights a week training, doing some very tough work, and it’s standing to the players at this stage.”
One of the few areas where Ballinrobe might have the edge is in terms of experience. This is the strongest squad of 20 players the club has assembled in recent years and a large number of them played in the 2003 cup final side.
“I would hope that having that bit of experience means that if we get in a position to win we won’t panic. It could be a good help to us, along with the fact that we should have a good support there. It was great to see a lot of the lads from the ‘90 and ‘91 cup winning side down supporting us last week. Their support is a great boost to the lads.”
Ballinrobe have the power – and at this stage the fitness – to give Monivea a war of attrition like nothing they have experienced so far this season. The visitors will need to score 20 or more points to win but if they can get their noses in front early, and be at least within a score at half-time, than anything is possible.
This game will either be a one-sided stroll for the homeside or the hardest eighty minutes of their season. That will all depend on how they use the ball in the opening 20 minutes.
If Ballinrobe can avoid the urge to kick possession into the hands to the best back three in the province and set about attacking Monivea’s seemingly impenetrable set-pieces then we might just have a real contest on our hands.
This is the battle of the last two Junior clubs standing in this year’s competition and just might give us a game worth waiting for.
Prediction: Monivea by six points.
CONNACHT JUNIOR CUP
Monivea v Ballinrobe
Sunday, March 4 at 3pm