Sligo took a giant step towards a history making unique Connacht treble when they defeated Monivea at the Castle grounds in the Heineken Junior Cup semi final on Sunday. Sligo’s win over their keenest rivals sets up an incredible season finale where they will face north west neighbours Ballina over two weekends for the right to lift the Junior and Cawley cups.
Following Sligo’s league win against Monivea at Strandhill in Feburary, Sundays game was seen by many as the home teams chance to balance the books and at least win a share of the major junior trophies in Connacht. Sligo, however, had a different ideas and were determined to prove themselves as the totally dominant force of Connacht Junior rugby for this season.
Sligo kicked off playing against the slight hill for the first half. As expected the home outfit came out of the blocks with all guns blazing and attacked their visitors from the kick off. The home teams early pressure earned a penalty award close to the Sligo line after 5 minutes but Monivea Outhalf Ger O Connors kick drifted wide of the upright.
Monivea continued to press and on 16 minutes were awarded a penalty on the Sligo 10 metre line. O Connor’s effort again drifted wide.
Sligo regrouped and began to impose themselves on their hosts. With 25 minutes gone a superb Paddy Pearson break was stopped agonisingly short of the line and from the resulting ruck the referee saw fit to penalise Sligo and send Second Row James Wilson to the sin bin.
Sligo’s Out half Mark Butler looked to open the scoring on the half hour with a long range penalty but his well struck effort fell just short.
The visitors were not to be outdone, and despite being reduced to 14 men, they continued to apply the pressure on the Galway side but the game remained scoreless at the break.
The second half began with Sligo continuing to press and were rewarded with a Butler penalty 5 minutes in. Monivea however were next to respond and a well judged O’Connor kick brought parity back to the game.
In typical cup rugby fashion the game became a war of attrition with both sides putting their all into trying to gain the upper hand in the close quarter combat. Monivea moved ahead 16 minutes into the half when a powerful run by Eoin Rooney was stopped short of the Sligo line. The ball was spun wide to substitute winger Rory O Connor who scored in the corner.
Sligo immediately responded and fine work by the pack ensured the ball was won back from the kick off. A quick recycle was moved to powerhouse Mata Fifita and the centre linked well with flanker Simon Coulter before the ruck was set up in the centre of the pitch. Substitute full back Niall O Hara excellently switched the play from left to right before linking with the dynamic Aaron Spring on the 22. The powerful youngster pinned his ears back and raced through the despairing defence to the line to finish a well worked move. Butlers conversion attempt drifted to the right of the posts leaving the game finely balanced at 8 points each.
The Sligo pack were now the dominant unit. Substitute Wesley Maxwell and Adrian Mc Hale were on top in the scrums and Wilson, Jamie Bowes,and Paddy Conlon were linking well with Hooker Ross Mannion at lineout time.
The forwards pressure yielded a reward with 8 minutes left on the clock when great pressure at the scrum resulted in a Sligo penalty which Butler despatched to put Sligo ahead.
With three minutes remaining on the clock Sligo struck the killer blow. Mata Fifita received the ball in midfield and burst through three would be Monivea tacklers to make his way into the home 22. The giant centre expertly linked with the supporting Pearson and the scrum half raced to the line to dot down 10 metres from the left hand touchline. Butler bisected the posts with an excellently struck conversion to move Sligo 10 points.
Monivea gamely countered and their never say die attitude ensured a close finish. Sustained pressure on the Sligo line saw centre Kevin Higgins touchdown to move the score to 13-18 in favour of Sligo, but it was not enough to trouble the visitors and following the restart the referee blew the final whistle to confirm Sligo’s place in the cup final.
Also on Sunday Ballina overcame the challenge of Loughrea in the other semi final which incredibly sets up two identical finals for the Cawley cup and Heineken Connacht Junior cup. Next Sunday the two teams lock horns in the Cawley cup at Galwegians home in Glenina and the following Sunday the teams will battle it out for the Junior cup at the Galway sportsgrounds.
Sligo Aaron Spring, Brian Hynes, Gavin Foley, Mata Fifita, Billy Leahy, Mark Butler, Paddy Pearson, Ross Mannion, Gary Conneely, Adrian Mc Hale, James Wilson, Jamie Bowes, Cathal Culhane, Simon Coulter, Peter Mullan. Reps Wesley Maxwell, Paddy Conlon, Niall O Hara, Martin Feeney, Frankie Feeney.
Live match commentry brought to you by Ken O’Neill and Daragh Cox of Ocean FM with thanks to sponsors Raftery & Co. Accountants, Matt Lyons’s shops and main club sponsors McHugh’s Bar.
Photos by Rory Raftery – see more on the Sligo RFC facebook page – here.