By Kevin Egan
There’s uncharted territory, and then there’s this.
Roscommon CBS will go where no school from the county has gone before on Wednesday (tomorrow) afternoon when they travel to the Sportsgrounds in Galway to take part in the Top Oil sponsored Connacht Schools Senior Cup final at 4 p.m.. When they get there, however, they’ll meet a Garbally College side that look as strong as any team that have taken part in this competition for a generation.
The Ballinasloe school won their 46th senior cup crown 12 months ago after an incredible performance against Coláiste Iognáid of Galway, 45-26. Eight of that team lined out in this year’s semi-final win against Sligo Grammar School, while a ninth — out-half Cian Tracey — is still in the school but has been ruled out for the season with a long-term injury. Second-row forward and Taughmaconnell native Fergus Finneran missed last year’s final due to injury and had he been fit then, that number could have been higher again.
This season they have been simply irresistible, cantering to a league title and winning their three senior cup ties so far by an average margin of 20 points. They have some electric performers all across the field, led by Irish international players Shane Jennings at full-back and Oisín McCormack in the back row.
The team’s ability to run the ball from anywhere on the field, exemplified by Jennings who seems to carry from anywhere, forces the opposition to dig deep into their reserves of physical and mental energy. Against a Roscommon CBS side that frequently asks most, if not all, of the starting 15 to play the full 70 minutes — no replacement was used in their semi-final win — the sheer relentless pressure that will be applied by the Ballinasloe students is sure to be a key factor in Wednesday’s conterst.
If it’s beginning to seem as if Roscommon CBS might have to bridge a gap the size of the Grand Canyon tomorrow, then that’s because there is a lot of evidence pointing in that direction.
Still, the old adage about “it’s all about what happens on the day” is sure to be used frequently in both dressing rooms, and Garbally will certainly be acutely aware that they can ill-afford to underestimate Roscommon CBS on the basis of their inexperience. Four years ago — the same day that Roscommon CBS won the Connacht Junior Cup in spectacular fashion with a 36-0 win over Coláiste Iognáid, featuring tries from Melvin Conteh (2) Jason Hoare (2), Rian Biesty and James Brandon — Garbally played Summerhill College of Sligo in the senior cup final.
It was Summerhill’s first ever senior cup final and despite their status as novices, they couldn’t have come any closer, losing out by the bare minimum, 19-18. Summerhill’s second try with four minutes to play was their last score of the game and they missed the conversion that would have given them the lead, while they also had a late breakaway that could have seen them snatch the win, only to be denied by a fantastic tackle from Garbally winger Noel Cotton.
Garbally’s management will be keen to share the lessons of that day with this latest generation of players, as they’ll know that the longer Roscommon CBS stay in this game, the more the weight of history and expectation is likely to become a factor. Meanwhile the underdogs will start to believe that the upset they crave is a possibility.
In that regard, the decision by this Roscommon CBS management team to take the players out of Connacht for a series of challenge games against proven rugby schools like St. Munchin’s (Limerick), Cistercian College (Roscrea) and Kilkenny CBS seems like a wise one. There aren’t too many “establishment” schools in Connacht and for young athletes who are raised in a rural environment, the culture shock of coming up against traditional rugby schools, with history dripping out of every 200-year-old oak tree on their expansive old grounds, can sometimes knock players out of their stride.
Taking on a number of these schools has helped these young Roscommon CBS players to realise that when the referee blows his whistle and there are just 30 players standing on a field, all those factors cease to be relevant, as long as they aren’t allowed to become mental stumbling blocks.
Neither side will have been hugely happy with their set piece play in the two semi-finals, particularly in the lineout where Sligo Grammar disrupted the Garbally put in quite frequently. Roscommon CBS also endured huge difficulty in retaining their own throws. The infamously windy conditions in the Sportsgrounds tend to make it that bit tougher for either side to try and find the back of the line out, so the contest between CBS captain Conor Rohan and Finneran at the front is likely to be hugely significant — though because Garbally tend not to kick, it’s quite likely that Garbally will have more lineout throws than the CBS here.
Against any team who runs the ball frequently, the best way to minimise the threat is usually to keep the ball out of their hands entirely, and for that reason the CBS could be happy to keep things tight and to play a solid, territorial game, with plenty of hard runs off the fringes of the ruck.
There’ll be another all-Roscommon clash in the front row with CBS loosehead Tom Farrell packing down against Jamie Curley of Moore, who’ll be hoping to celebrate his 18th birthday (today) with his second senior cup medal, while on the other side of the scrum, Connacht player Jack Tucker will try to get the better of Seamus Egan. Tucker and Farrell are both very adept ball carriers and if they can make the hard yards close in and help the CBS retain the ball through plenty of phases, then there’s not a lot that Garbally can do without the ball.
Getting scores on the board would of course be welcome, but even if play breaks down, every five minutes that Roscommon CBS spends in possession is five minutes that Garbally don’t have the ball. In every sport, rugby in particular, underdogs tend to have a better track record in low-scoring battles of attrition as opposed to high-flying shootouts.
A lot needs to go right for Roscommon CBS in order for Eimhín Griffith’s side to become only the second school in over 40 years to add a new name onto the Connacht Schools Senior Cup roll of honour.
Even in a tight, forward-dominated battle, Garbally’s ability to execute a quick offload can open gaps through the middle, so gambles on trying to secure a turnover in the tackle should be rare, and carefully chosen. There are times when a kick will be necessary, but the counter-attacking threat has to be honoured and respected, so it’s vital that, where possible, relieving kicks have to ask the Garbally back three to either turn back towards their own goal or else operate very close to the touchline — a first time catch where Jennings, Shay Hennessy or Seán Horkan can choose between different lanes of running could spell disaster.
On the other side of the ball, CBS have to be clinical, and, to their credit, they proved that they can do that in their semi-final win. Stephen Mannion is a devastatingly effective runner when coming onto the ball from the three-quarter line, but Cian Tracey’s injury means that he’s been forced to fill the out-half berth this year, and Sligo Grammar School enjoyed some success attacking his channel in the semi-final, particularly when openside Oisín McCormack was committed to the ruck and not there to support. Tim Lambe’s ability to spot a chink of space and to attack it with either quick hands or quick feet is a possibly path to profitability.
On top of all this, Roscommon CBS have to hope that Garbally don’t produce the type of flowing, stylish, error-free rugby that they are capable of for too long, because there’s only one team with the prospect of scoring 30 points or more here.
With so many things that have to work out in their favour, it would be foolish to say that anything other than a comfortable Garbally win is the most likely outcome. But then, there was a time when it would be foolish to predict that Roscommon CBS would ever share a rugby field with Garbally College, never mind doing so on the biggest stage of all. Having made so many huge strides already, surely a few more steps forward can’t be considered impossible, even if it is unlikely.
HERALD VERDICT: Garbally College