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Big crowd watch Connacht

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IT’S RAINING MEN Connacht’s Ray Ofisa makes light of the horrendous conditions against Munster during their Magners League game on New Year’s Eve. Pic: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile

Big crowd watch Connacht

Rob Murphy

A RECORD crowd of 4,650 packed the Sportsground on New Year’s Eve for Connacht’s  14-8 defeat to Munster in the Magners League. Despite the result and horrendous weather conditions, it is safe to assume that all and sundry enjoyed the afternoon.
The atmosphere and friendly banter in the ground throughout was superb. It was best summed up midway through the first half when the travelling hordes from Munster attempted to strike up a rendition of their adopted anthem ‘The Fields of Athenry’ only to be drowned out by chants of ‘Athenry’s in Galway’ from the vocal home fans.
On the serious side of things the home support continues to grow in Connacht, and that is proof that professional rugby in Galway is on the right track to success. In the heel of the hunt the validity of a fourth team based in Galway will always be based on attendance figures, and these continue to grow in line with elsewhere.
On the field the improvements aren’t as easy to measure. Connacht lie second bottom of the table, a place they are all too familiar with at this stage. They trail the Dragons (the lowest ranked Welsh side) by one point in the race for the play-offs but the Newport-based side have three games in hand.
Their hopes of finally breaking free from their vicious circle of Challenge Cup rugby are not looking good. However, all is not lost if the performances of the past two games against Ulster and Munster are to be the norm this spring.
Connacht lost on Sunday because they failed to build up a lead at half-time that their dominance up front had warranted. More importantly, however, they lost because Declan Kidney is the most intuitive on-the-fly decision-maker in the land. The Munster coach had the good sense to call four of his top players from the bench at the break to rescue a bad situation.
Kidney had taken a gamble resting some key frontliners against a Connacht pack that had caused untold damage to Ulster in Ravenhill and stood up to a full strength Munster in Thomond Park.  Leading 6-3 at the break, having played with a gale force wind and been on the back foot throughout, Kidney knew changes were needed.
Munster’s big stars took full control after the early second half Connacht try. As they have done so often, the southerners strangled the life out of the game with incisive kicking and intelligent line breaks in the centre exploiting gaps rather than aimlessly bashing their opposite numbers. Up front O’Connell and Wallace were at their rampaging best.
The Connacht pack deserve tremendous credit especially for their first half display. John Fogarty again was fantastic with his throws and around the park, while Andrew Farley and early replacement Michael Swift were exceptional. Farley was making his 100th appearance, Swift his 101st. Neither shirked an inch all afternoon.
Elsewhere, John Muldoon was truly outstanding for Connacht both in fringe defence and general gutsy work at the breakdown. Ray Ofisa’s second half steal led to the Connacht try, while the tenacious Colm Rigney completed the strong back row performance.
It wasn’t a day for creative running rugby so analysing the difficulties with the current first choice backline would be a little unfair, although there are clear problems. On the positive side of things, the defence was brilliant. Darren Yapp was exceptional in fielding high kicks and defensive tackles, three of which saved certain tries.
Serious injuries to Keith Matthews and David Gannon will provide fresh headaches to the coaching staff and stretch Connacht’s limited resources in the build-up to two largely meaningless European Challenge Cup games. Connacht need two bonus point wins and a couple of major upsets elsewhere to qualify.
After that it’s Edinburgh and the Ospreys away, where both sides are likely to be without key players due to the Six Nations. If the Connacht pack reproduce the displays we have seen over the past couple of weeks, then they will win and win well. But too often the focus isn’t as good in the less attractive fixtures; such was the case against Glasgow and Cardiff this season.  
It’s not too late to make amends for those mistakes and the team’s reaction to the Montpellier debacle has been exemplary in the past couple of weeks. One or maybe two wins in Europe in January would boost confidence and build momentum ahead of that pivotal clash with Edinburgh. There is a lot rugby to be played yet and Connacht fans won’t be giving up the ghost just yet.

CLUB RUGBY RETURNS again NEXT WEEKEND
THERE IS very little time to work off the extra grub consumed over Christmas week for rugby players around the province. Next weekend sees a full programme of rugby action around the province both at AIL and Junior level.
On Sunday the clash of the day in the Connacht Junior League will be at Cloondeash where Castlebar, the most improved side of the season to date, entertain league leaders Monivea. The recent defeat to a very strong Galwegians won’t have set Castlebar back too much in their goal to secure a top four place. But it does mean Monivea will be strong favourites to emerge from a tight contest.
Elsewhere, Ballinrobe will be looking to build on last week’s victory over Corrib in the Conor McHugh Memorial Cup with a victory against struggling Balllinasloe. Westport and Ballina will prepare for their Junior Cup battle on January 14 with home ties against Creggs and Sligo respectively.
‘ROBE RECLAIM CONOR MCHUGH memorial CUP
A DRAMATIC late try from veteran forward Paul Keane set Ballinrobe up for a 20-16 victory over their old rivals, Corrib, in the annual Conor McHugh Memorial Cup Final last weekend.
Man of the match, Doran McHugh (a cousin of the late Conor), laid the foundation for the homeside’s win with an early five-pointer while Johann Fourie also nipped in for a first half try for the winners.
However, it was Corrib who led at half-time (13-10) thanks to tries from Mike Monahan and Martin Lee allied to a Monahan penalty.
Adrian Flannery levelled matters with a second half penalty before Charlie O’Sullivan dropped a goal to ease Corrib back in front.
There was nothing between the sides heading into the closing stages but up popped Keane to finish off a driving maul and touch down doe the clinching score.


WEEKEND PREDICTIONS
Aib League Division 1 (Saturday, 2.30pm): Galwegians v Dolphin, home by 6; Terenure v Buccaneers, away by 3; AIB League Division 3: Connemara v Queens University, away by 3; Portadown v Corinthians, away by 10.
Connacht Junior League Division 1 (Sunday, 2.30pm): Ballina v Sligo, away by 3; Ballinrobe v Ballinasloe, home by 7; Buccaneers v OLBC, home by 6; Castlebar v Monivea, away by 5; Corinthians v Loughrea, home by 10; Corrib v Galwegians, away by 3; UCG v Tuam, away by 7; Westport v Creggs, home by 10.

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