Connacht coach Eric Elwood will spend part of the next two weeks in camp with the Ireland A squad. The Wolfhounds, as they are known, play Scotland A on the Friday before Ireland’s Six Nations opener in Italy.
He and the Connacht camp will be in better spirits heading into this three-week mid-season lay off after a fine win in Bayonne two weeks ago and a facile 83-7 victory over Cavalieri at the weekend in the European Challenge Cup. However a hugely significant run of Magners League games starts on February 12 and the return of some long-term absentees in recent week is certainly a boost.
Elwood will have three Connacht players with him in that A squad - Brett Wilkinson, Keith Matthews and Jamie Hagen, who might yet get called up to the main squad after a John Hayes’ injury stretched resources.
Mike McCarthy, Sean Cronin and the returning Gavin Duffy are with Declan Kidney this week. Duffy is fighting for a full back slot with Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy ruled out, but there is a feeling Ireland may experiment with Luke Fitzgerald in that position.
A record scoreline saw Connacht conclude their Amlin Challenge Cup campaign on somewhat of a high note on Saturday night as the westerners made it two wins in succession and exacted a bit of revenge for their opening round defeat away to the Italians.
The home side managed a total of 12 tries including a hat trick for Brian Tuohy and a brace for Niva Ta’auso on a night when the Italians were completely outclassed. Games like are hardly worth noting as little can be said for the visitors’ defending, but there were some positives.
Gavin Duffy and Ray Ofisa marked their returns from long-term injuries with good displays. Ofisa was a lively presence in the final half hour after coming on as a replacement, while Duffy managed to come through the 80 minutes unscathed and will hope now to push on with the Irish squad in the coming weeks. Both will be key components for Connacht in the coming months.
Connacht’s professionalism in the game was also pleasing. They rarely wavered, remained focused, direct, and inventive throughout, keeping ball in hand after a shaky start and exploiting the multitude of gaps on offer. A strong home debut from Shane Conneely to go with his fine display in Bayonne was another positive.
Connacht scored six first-half tries in total and could have had more against a Prato side that was desperately poor in defence in the opening half. The game’s opening try came from a crossfield kick from Ian Keatley tapped down by Gavin Duffy into the arms of Brian Tuohy who scored in the corner on five minutes.
A wake up call came in the guise of a Noa Soqeta try after the visitors found some space on the fringes and punished the home side. Alberto Chiesa converted for a 7-5 lead, but it lasted a mere three minutes as Tuohy had his second try scored by the 12th minute after a fine break by Keatley and Gavin Duffy.
Keatley kicked the conversion and added a penalty before the outhalf burst clear from inside his own half rounded the full back and scored a brilliant solo try which he converted under the post, and by the 25th minute they had the bonus point wrapped up thanks to Mike McCarthy.
Two more tries arrived in the final three minutes of the first half from Niva Ta’auso and Fionn Carr. Sean Cronin started the scoring in the second half before Tuohy secured a hat-trick and Ta’auso got his second in an early flurry.
Tries from an impressive Mike McComish and Adrian Flavin followed before the game finished with Ray Ofisa marking his return with a try to conclude proceedings and secure that all time winning margin record.
Corinthians game off
The All-Ireland Cup semi-final between Dungannon and Corinthians was called off because of a frozen pitch at the Ulster venue. Due to a backlog of fixtures the re-fixture will not take place until March 5.
Next weekend Galwegians travel to division 1b league leaders Clontarf in a game where they will be heavy outsiders, having lost and conceded the bonus point to the same opponents at Crowley Park earlier this year. Buccaneers entertain Bruff and should stay on course for promotion.
In Division 2 Corinthains are away to midtable Belfast Harlequins. It is a tricky tie, but they need the points to keep up with the promotion pace in the division. They are about to begin a run of six straight weeks of action culminating in that re-fixed cup semi final. In Division 3, Connemara host Seapoint.
The Connacht Junior League title and a place in the All Ireland League is Sligo’s to lose now after they came from behind to deny a luckless Monivea 30-20 in Standhill in front of a huge crowd on Sunday. The heartbreak for Monivea continues as their 10 year campaign to reach Senior level looks like falling short again.
Connacht results: Junior Division 1A, Westport 13 Ballina 32; Corrib 35 Corinthians 35; Sligo 30 Monivea 20; Loughrea 14 Galwegians 11; OLBC 10 Tuam 11; Junior Division 1B, Buccaneers 18 Ballinasloe 5; UCG 20 Ballyhaunis 10; Connemara 20 Gort 5; Portumna 10,Creggs 8.
Fixtures: Thursday January 27, Supermac’s Schools Senior Cup: Calasanctius Oranmore v Marist College 1pm; Supermacs Schools Junior Cup, Colaiste Iognaid v The Bish 1:30pm; Supermac’s Schools Junior Plate u-16: St Raphael’s Loughrea v Summerhill 1pm; Gallen CS v Clifden CS 1pm; St Mary’s Ballygar v Pres Athenry 1pm; Athenry VS v Athlone CC 1pm.
Friday January 28, Junior Division 1B, UCG v Portumna 8pm. Sunday January 30,
Junior Division 1A (all games 2.30pm: Ballina v Corrib; Corinthians v Loughrea; Monivea v Westport; Tuam v Sligo; Castlebar v OLBC; Galwegians v Ballinrobe; Junior Division 1B, Gort v Carrick; Ballinasloe v Dunmore; Junior Division 2A, Creggs v Corinthians; Ballina v Buccaneers.