The Ulster Bank League returns this weekend with four Connacht teams ready for action. Buccaneers and Corinthians will be in the second tier — or Division 1b to be precise – Galwegians are a league below in Division 2a; while Sligo will be in Division 2b again for the third season since returning.
A total of four clubs out of 52 competing in the national competition represents an 8% presence in the league and highlights the huge challenges still facing club rugby in the West.
Connemara’s relegation last season was a blow; Sligo are not a guaranteed presence for the next decade either; and looking below to the Junior leagues, no club looks capable of making the step up within the next three years when you look at resources and strength-in-depth.
The good news story from last year came from Corinthians, under the guidance of the hugely qualified Director of Coaching, Phil Pretorius. The South African has transformed the side from a plucky third tier competitor into a second tier club with big ambitions. They get their campaign underway with a trip to Dublin to take on Trinity.
The challenge will be stark in their new surrounds. It is an unforgiving 10-team league with home and away fixtures making for an 18 round season compared to the 15 games in Division 2a. They will need squad depth and plenty of mental fortitude to survive the campaign.
Galwegians start out in the third tier once again after failing to bounce back and watching their city rivals overtake them for one season at least. They’ll be anxious to catch up this time around and they will hone-in on the opening four games as crucial to their ambitions.
Last season, the Sky Blues took far to long to acclimatise to their new surrounds in Division 2a and had lost three of their first four games before getting to grips with it all — they won nine of their next 11 but the damage was done. The open away to Ballymena who come down from Division 1b this season and a win of any kind will kick start the campaign.
Bundee Aki to miss European play-off
Connacht centre Bundee Aki received a three match ban for misconduct this week which means he will miss Connacht’s final two league games and the European play-off game most probably against a French side.
Aki faced a Disciplinary Panel via video link after a Misconduct Complaint was made against him by the Disciplinary Officer of PRO12 Rugby.
The complaint referred to Aki’s behaviour to and remarks directed toward, referee Ian Davies, during and immediately after the Round 20 fixture between Connacht and Leinster.
Aki admitted to the charge of misconduct and the Panel gave him a sanction of a three-match suspension.
That means he will also miss Connacht’s final home fixture against Scarlets tomorrow or in the last game of the regular season against Munster in Thomond Park next week.
The player can return to play on Monday, May 22 which means he would be available to play in a final European qualifier should Connacht win the first one.
Disaster for Wegians as home loss sees Blues relegated
GALWEGIANS’ hugely disappointing All-Ireland League campaign came to a rather ignominious end when they were soundly beaten by their visitors Naas, who in the process secured second place with this victory and earn themselves a home semi-final in the promotion play-offs.
The Blues came into this game knowing that nothing less than a win would save them from the drop, and they were also counting on UL Bohs to do them a favour against Dolphin, so the motivational stakes could not have been higher.
Wegians started nervously and looked like a side bereft of confidence, and it was the Kildare men who dominated the opening quarter, threatening the Wegians line on several occasions. However for all their dominance, the Blues defence held sway and kept their line intact.
Wegians got a boost when an intercept by centre Rory Parata on his 10m line saw him race clear into opposition territory, and his clever kick ahead just eluded winger Alan McMahon. However Parata was impeded on his run which gave a chance for a shot on goal, and out-half Morgan Codyre made no mistake from in front of the posts to give the hosts a 3-0 lead.
With the aid of a stiff cross-breeze, the visitors kept up the pressure, and they finally managed to breech the Wegians rearguard just on the half-hour mark. It looked like Wegians would initially deal with an attacking threat, but when the ball went loose, Naas hooker Warren Larkin found himself unmarked with the line at his mercy and he dived over for the game’s opening score.
Cillian Dempsey scuffed the simple conversion to leave it at 5-3, and shortly afterwards a great hit by Parata on his opposite number Fionn Carr led to a penalty opportunity. Codyre again took full advantage to restore his side’s lead by the narrowest of margins at 6-5.
Arguably the turning point of the game came right on the stroke of half-time. With Wegians prop Martin Fox in the sin-bin, the ever-threatening Carr went on a sortee down the right flank. The ex-Connacht man easily brushed off three attempted tackles before feeding his winger Ben O’Connor who sauntered over unopposed for the simplest of scores. This time Dempsey converted to give his side a 12-6 lead at the break.
Wegians came out of the traps immediately on the restart, and when they were restored to 15 men and with the slight wind advantage at their backs, there were flickers of hope that they could regain their lead. They desperately needed the next score to keep themselves in contention, however the visitors dealt comfortably with the attacking threat and they soon took a stranglehold on the game, working their way back upfield.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.
Cian Kelleher debuts at full back in Connacht’s season-opener
New signing Cian Kelleher will make his competitive debut lining out at fullback for Connacht against Galsgow tomorrow (5.15pm). The 22-year-old is named in a back three with Niyi Adeolokun and Irish international Matt Healy.
Eoin Griffin has been handed the number 13 shirt for his return to the Sportsground after two seasons with London Irish. The 25-year-old from Galway will partner last season’s PRO12 Players’ Player Bundee Aki in midfield.
In the pack, Denis Buckley makes a welcome return to the front row after his lengthy lay off recovering from an ankle injury. Internationals Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane are also named and Nepia Fox-Matamua returns to start in the back row with Eoin McKeon and captain John Muldoon.
From the bench, Lewis Stevenson is in line to make his full Connacht debut and Kieran Marmion comes in as the replacement scrum half.
Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, head coach Pat Lam said:
“What an exciting game to kick off a new season at home where we have two teams who really like to express themselves. Games against Glasgow are always tough and uncompromising and with their impressive selection of international players, we expect that to be no different tomorrow.
“It’s a new season and a somewhat new-look side with just eight who started at Murrayfield in May lining out tomorrow. Today is the last time all 12 teams will be level on points. With five points on offer now our focus is on the process which will give us the best chance of winning.
“Starting the championship at home is a huge boost and we’re looking forward to experiencing the magical atmosphere here at the Sportsground once again come 5:15.”
Connacht team to face Glasgow Warriors, Saturday 3rd September, the Sportsground, 5:15pm
15 Cian Kelleher
14 Niyi Adeolokun
13 Eoin Griffin
12 Bundee Aki
11 Matt Healy
10 Jack Carty
9 Caolin Blade
1 Denis Buckley
2 Tom McCartney
3 Finlay Bealham
4 Ultan Dillane
5 Danny Qualter
6 Eoin McKeon
7 Nepia Fox-Matamua
8 John Muldoon (captain)
16 Dave Heffernan
17 Ronan Loughney
18 JP Cooney
19 Lewis Stevenson
20 James Connolly
21 Kieran Marmion
22 Shane O’Leary
23 Peter Robb
For a full preview of the match and Connacht’s season see this week’s 24 page souvenir supplement free with the Tribune