Connacht have made an historical breakthrough in Irish rugby with the junior XV claiming their first interprovincial crown.
Having made steady progress in the last few years and pipped at the post by Leinster two seasons ago, the province was finally rewarded on Saturday when they overcame Munster by 26 - 9 to seal this major prize.
Significantly Connacht’s victory was on the back of a clean sweep over their fellow provinces and, appropriately, it was clinched at home at the Galway Sportsground.
Although never having won the tourament, Connacht’s growing self belief proved a crucial ingredient, and they entered the final fixture as the only unbeaten side, having already dented the ambitions of Ulster and Leinster with consecutive wins by 36-12 and 20 - 14. However any slip-up could have resulted in either of those two sides grabbing the crown again, but Connacht produced another dominant performance - committed up front, showing pace out wide, and clearly demonstrating more tactical astuteness.
Unusually Connacht, having won the toss, opted to play into the stiff breeze in the first half. However they ended the opening 40 minutes behind by only four points, giving them a real motivation to mount a serious second-half challenge. They went on to score two more tries and ....
Munster had opened the scoring within three minutes when fullback Dara O’Brien slotted a straightforward penalty from 25 metres, and they did have Connacht under pressure in that opening 10 minutes, requiring a committed defensive effort from the home side.
However Connacht made their first opportunity count when outhalf Paddy Pearson found a gap following a 10m line-out. Kevin Higgins and Rory O’Connor continued the move and when Munster conceded a penalty, flanker Mike Ward took a quick tap before sending Higgins over in the corner.
Munster, however, replied with another close-range penalty to take a 6-5 lead, and it took some strong tackling, particularly by Martin Lee and Aaron Spring, to halt their march. Instead the visitors had to be content with a kickable penalty, stretching the lead to 9-5 in the 28th minute.
Just four points down, and with the wind behind them and Munster hooker Alan O’Donnell in the sinbin, Connacht looked to be in the driving seat. They first had to snuff out a Munster attack after an excellent break from second row Paul Memory, but on five minutes Pearson pinned Munster in their own half, and forced a lineout in Connacht’s favour. A quick lineout and some slick handling provided centre Mata Fafita with the opportunity to attack, and he rounded Munster fullback O’Brien to touch down for a second unconverted try.
Pearson continued to use the wind to pressure Munster and were rewarded when he potted a penalty in front of the posts to stretch the lead to 13 – 9.
The crucial score came after Eoin Rooney and Doran McHugh took the ball forward and from the ensuing ruck scrumhalf Mickey Murphy put winger Aaron Spring through for a try, which Pearson converted.
With Munster ineffective in making ground against the stiff breeze, Pearson sealed the game up for Connacht when he slotted a penalty after Munster were punished for a scrum infringement. With the title beckoning, Connacht emptied the bench and replacement outhalf O’Connor wrapped up the scoring with a late penalty before Connacht celebrated their first championship win in more than 50 years of the competition.
Connacht Juniors: K Higgins (Monivea, capt ), R O’Connor (Monivea ), M Prior (Monivea ), M Fafita (Sligo ), A Spring (Sligo ), P Pearson (Sligo ), M Murphy (Ballina ), W Maxwell, M Lee (Corrib ), T Tolan (Ballina ), J Bowes (Sligo ), W Parker (Monivea ), E Rooney(Monivea ), M Ward (Tuam ), A McNulty (Ballina ) Replacements, D McHugh (OLBC ), R Coughlan (Monivea ), B Murphy (Monivea ), D Hansberry (OLBC ), T Ellard (Westport ), G O’Connor (Monivea ), J Culkin (Monivea )
Connacht management: Head coach, Seamus King , Assistant coach, Eddie Walsh; Manager, Mick Turley.
Munster: Darragh O’Brien (Cashel ); Rory O’Connor (Cashel ), Pat O’Connor (Cashel ), Kieran Merrigan (Clanwilliam ), Ciaran Ó Coileain (Corca Dhuibhne ); Conor Quinlan (Cashel ), Ollie McGlinchey (Cashel ); Trevor Downes (Kilrush ), Alan O’Donnell (Galbally ), Michael McInerney (Ennis ); JJ Frahill (Cobh Pirates ), Paul Memery (Crosshaven ); Brian O’Sullivan (Tralee ), Ger Luby (Kilfeacle,capt ), Tadgh Wright (Kinsale ). Replacements, Darragh Fitzgerald (St. Mary’s ), Tom Keveney (Cobh Pirates ), Brian Lyons (Thurles ), Barry O’Dwyer (Thurles ), David McCormack (Clanwilliam ), DaraMeade (Kanturk ), Dermot O’Sullivan (Tralee ).
Referee: Dave O’Shea.