THE Heineken Connacht Junior Cup has its earliest ever start next weekend with six preliminary round ties taking place. The most eagerly anticipated of these fixtures will be the clash of Ballina and Westport at Heffernan Park.
The sides met in the league last season for the first time since Ballina entered the AIL in the early 1990s but that contest was a mismatch as Ballina were seriously understrength. Nonetheless, Westport came out on top 21-5. On Sunday there will be no excuses. With the league title almost out of reach for the Bulls and a relegation battle facing Ballina, both sides will be targeting this competition to turn their season around. A January exit is certainly not an option.
The gap in the league table will not make happy reading for the Ballina squad and they will be anxious to prove that they can still mix it with their Mayo rivals. They also need to build momentum for a number of crucial league games in their battle to avoid relegation.
Ballina’s backline is the more threatening of the two with Simon Wade at full back, the dangerous Dave Newman at centre and the talented Andrew Moynihan at out half. However, Westport have a solid and experienced half back pairing and will look to the likes of Eamonn Molloy, Pat Staunton, Danny O’Toole and Michael Heneghan for an edge out wide.
Up front, Westport clearly have the advantage. Their pack have put them in a position to win a lot of games this season and the back row of Peter Corcoran, David Keane and John Paul Walsh will cause problems. Ballina’s trio of Aidan McNulty, Philip Timoney and Shane Loftus will have a tough assignment.
In the current climate of wet and windy weather, forwards are crucial. In cup games they can be pivotal, and for that reason, Westport should edge this one, even though they are on the road, That said, don’t be surprised if Ballina bring back some of the old guard for one more push at glory.
The other Mayo clubs involved in opening round action should have an easier introduction to the cup competition. Castlebar travel to Portumna, who haven’t been in great form in Division 2 of the league. However, with the hurling season concluded, they will be at full strength and their backline is dangerous.
Castlebar will need to take their opportunities early and keep the home side on the back foot. If they can secure victory then they will be at home to another J2 side, Connemara, in the first round. After that they have the opportunity of a home quarter-final and semi-final but a lot has to go right in the meantime.
Ballyhaunis have finally been given a decent Junior Cup draw after getting the short straw on far too many occasions. They face fellow Division 2 side Carrick-on-Shannon at home next weekend, a side they have already defeated away in the league. It’s likely to be a tight battle but with the likes of Jean Pierre Jeffries, Brendan Calleary and Stephen Shanaghy in good form in the backline, they should possess enough quality to advance for a trip to Loughrea in round one.
Elsewhere, league leaders Monivea face a rematch with Tuam, who stunned them on their own turf 19-16 in the Junior League earlier this season. For that reason an upset is highly unlikely as Monivea, led by Kevin Higgins, will be in no mood to let lightning strike twice. The winner will travel to OLBC in round one.
UCG got their first win of the season against Ballinasloe a week before Christmas and might sneak a second at home to Division 2 side Gort. The reward for the winner will be a difficult away match with Galwegians. Finally, Creggs will be underdogs at home to Buccaneers, but have a good pedigree in the cup, having reached the semi-final last season.
WESTPORT WIN BUT CAN MONIVEA BE STOPPED?
WESTPORT WARMED up for the cup action with a comfortable bonus point home win over Creggs at Carrowholly. Scrum half Paul Jennings had a memorable afternoon with a hat trick of tries while Niall Munroe added one of his own to secure yet another four-try victory for a side that struggled in that department last season.
They are in outright second place, just six points off the lead. But after Monivea’s hard earned away victory in Castlebar on Sunday, it’s hard to see where they will slip up in the coming weeks. Sligo trail the leaders by 12 in third place but have two games in hand, so last year’s runners-up still have a slight chance of overhauling the leaders.
Elsewhere, Loughrea caused a major upset by defeating Corinthians 10-8 away from home and are now looking like they could pull clear of trouble. Corrib are slipping after a 24-3 defeat to Galwegians, who also look to be out of danger. The Headford-based side are five points clear of Ballina in the drop zone but have played two more games.
FRESH HEADACHES FOR INJURY-HIT CONNACHT
CONNACHT RETURN to action this Friday night with a European Challenge Cup clash with Bath at the Sportsground. Their hopes of qualification are all but gone barring two bonus point wins and a string of unlikely results. But this contest will be crucial in their hopes to built momentum for the Magners league.
The Christmas period brought two defeats, to Munster and Ulster. But the much improved performances will offer hope to Connacht fans that they can catch the Dragons for that final play-off position.
Serious injuries to Keith Matthews (out for the season) and forwards David Gannon and John Muldoon (both out for six weeks) will provide fresh headaches to the coaching staff. Their absence will stretch Connacht’s limited resources over the next few weeks in the lead up to what has become a must win game in Edinburgh at the end of this month.
Having put eight points between themselves and Connacht in the table, Munster duly gave up the ghost against the woeful Dragons last week. They put out a very weak side and lost a dour game, gifting the Welsh side four points in the table.
The Dragons, the lowest ranked Welsh side, hold the last Heineken Cup play-off position and lead Connacht by five points with two games in hand. With all the Welsh sides in excellent form, Connacht may need to win six of their remaining eight games to stay in contention for Heineken Cup qualification.