CONNACHT rugby is making its mark in Munster, as evidenced by the result of the 23rd annual Pat Lawler Tournament, which takes place in Thomond Park every year, prior to the start of the rugby season.
This year the Under 13s from Sligo RFC were invited to take part in the tournament for the first time, and were pitted against teams from across the country, teams with a long history of success on the rugby pitch who have consistently turned out players of the calibre of Peter Stringer, Paul Oâ€™Connell and Anthony Foley.
The Sligo squad made the trip down to Limerick on Friday evening ready for the tournament on Saturday. Playing on the main pitch at Thomond Park might have intimidated some, but not these boys, who were prepared for the tournament by coaches John Davey, Gerry Oâ€™Daly and Dean Weaver.
In the qualifying group stage, Sligo was drawn against Kilfeacle and Richmond in the and surprised the opposition in both matches by recording victories on scorelines of 3-0 in respectively. The Munster teams started to sit up and take notice on their Connacht opponents at this stage and Sligo were through to the quarter-final, this time drawing the Shannon team as opponents.
This was a serious match, but the Sligo side saw off the opposition with a 2-1 victory, tries being scored by Diarmuid Oâ€™Dowd Hill and Kieran Blake. Sligo had started to make an impact, and on reaching the semi-final, found themselves up against the UL Bohemians â€˜Aâ€™ team, the defending champions.
This was perhaps the hardest match of the tournament for Sligo. Every decision seemed to go against the Sligo boys and yet the first try of the match was scored by Sligo scrum-half Enda Gavin before the half-time whistle blew. Bohemians fought back with a try in the second half, and the two teams fought tooth and nail for victory, with a place in the final at stake.
The match inevitably went to extra-time, with four minutes each side and a “golden try” deciding who would go through to the final. The atmosphere was tense, both on and off the pitch, with the Sligo contingent urging their side on from the touchline.
Some strong defending meant that no ground was conceded and, with no further score after eight minutes of play, the Sligo team were through to the final by virtue of having scored the first try. The roar from the supporters was deafening!
With barely a moment to draw breath, the team were out again this time taking on Young Munster for the trophy. The Sligo boys did a mighty job, but the efforts of the day had taken their toll and the team conceded three tries in the first half. Fighting back in the second half, Sligoâ€™s Eoghan Flanagan scored a try to bring the score up to 3-1. Unfortunately, time ran out and Young Munster took the title, well-deserved after being runners-up in 2005.
It was a great honour for the Sligo side to be invited to take part in the tournament and the hospitality received by the players, coaches and supporters was exceptional. For the team from Sligo to reach the final in what has always been a Munster-dominated tournament shows how far rugby has come in Connacht. The team and their coaches would like to express their thanks to the organisers of the tournament for the opportunity to take part, and Sligo looks forward to returning to Munster next year, with victory in mind.
More photos from the event can be found here.