Connacht have a new name on the Connacht Senior Schools Cup for the first time in 35 years as the Marist College finally made the breakthrough in Wednesday’s final at the Galway Sportsground.
The Athlone outfit proved the complete package - stronger at the breakdown, solid in the line-out, and slick out wide, and they were deserving winners of their first senior cup since their one and only victory in 1977.
No one will begrudge the Marist this title, not even their Sligo counterparts who, having contested eight finals in the last 12 years, were looking for their 10th crown. Despite the best efforts of the Sligo pack, they were outclassed by the same Marist outfit that had also beaten them in this year’s Connacht League.
Marist, beaten twice in 2007 and 2008 when they had hoped to make the breakthrough, were led by Robert Henshaw, who made history last season when he earned Marist’s first Irish Schools cap, and they were worthy favourites this year. They lived up to expectation, particularly in the first half when they looked well on course after grabbing a deserved 12 - 0 half-time lead.
Although it was Sligo who created the first scoring chance when Marist were penalised at the breakdown, fullback Colm Egan was wide of the mark from the 10m line.
However it was Marist's much vaunted backline that instigated the first try with some slick passing, bringing play into the 22, and from some quick ruck ball flanker Brian Cooper sidestepped the cover to race in from 10 metres out. Outhalf Ben Carty missed the conversion.
Sligo did create a couple of chances in the first half, utilising their pack with seasoned campaigners Thomas Ferrari, Diarmuid O’Dowd-Hill, and Shane Boyle always making the hard yards count. And they came close to scoring in the 20th minute but for a crossing move just metres from the line.
Marist, however, wrested the initiative when opting to kick a penalty to touch after Sligo were pinged for offside at the ruck. And it paid dividends as the pack drove their way forward before No 8 Kevin Cooper had the finishing power to break from the back the ensuing ruck and dive over. Outhalf Ben Carty added the extras for a 12 - 0 lead, but they were dealt a blow when right wing Harry Hughes was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on after what was possibly Sligo’s best attack of the half from which they should have scored.
Yet Sligo failed to take advantage with Connacht schools player Colm Egan missing a second opportunity to put points on the board and, although they showed some prowess with the ball in hand, and had some attacking threat from Egan, they struggled to make an impression on the more physical Marist outfit.
Three successive penalties in a second half that did not live up to the opening 40 minutes failed to yield a much-needed score with Egan missing his third kick at goal. Marist, too, should have added to their score, but a superb tackle from right wing Daragh Higgins after Robbie Henshaw had sent Harry Hughes through ensured neither side added to the score in the second half.
However that will not detract from Marist’s victory. For the first time in more than 30 years the Marist were favorites having succeeded in winning their first league title .
In this Gaelic football stronghold, rugby was revived about a decade ago, thanks primarily to Mick Loftus, who helped introduce a new era of rugby players to the school, nursing a group of youngsters who made the breakthrough at junior level in 2003. Unfortunately that team fell at the final hurdle twice, coming up against the Galway side Colaiste Iognaid which had dominated the trophy since 2000. However Marist have now realised a long cherished ambition. Coached by former pupil and Buccaneers' coach Tony Dolan, whose son Mark played in both finals, Marist were deserving winners.
Marist College, Athlone: C Seery, H Hughes, R Henshaw, R Sheridan, E O’Reilly, B Carty, R Ashe, B Teape, E Kelly, S Meunargia, N Carr, C White, D Lynch, B Cooper, K Cooper. Replacements: C Langdon for Ashe (52m ), S Dempsey for Carr (52m ), S Chitsatso for Lynch (68m ).
Sligo Grammar: C Egan, D Higgins, J McGoldrick, M Martin, C Cooper, M Green, E Gavin, E Kilroy, M Davey, M Davey, R Hehir, D O'Dowd-Hill, S Boyle, S Mullaney, T Ferrari. Replacements: D Layden for Green (38m ), J Draper for Hehir (68m ), P Deering for Mullaney (68m ).
Referee: Daniel Collins (Connacht )