Galwegians have a real chance of qualifying for the AIB Cup semi-finals for a second year in succession when they host Ballynahinch on Saturday at Crowley Park.
The Galway club has enjoyed the best of the quarter-final draws, being pitted against one of only two division two outfits now left in the competition. Buccaneers, the second team from Connacht, face a tougher assignment away to Garryowen, Young Munster host UCC, and Dolphin and Cork Con face each other in the second all-Munster derby. Unusually, no Leinster side advanced to this stage of the competition.
However Galwegians will certainly not want to underestimate their Ulster opponents. Ballynahinch, newly crowned Ulster Senior League champions, are currently in the hunt for division two honours, and having knocked out the cup holders Shannon in the last round, they will not be travelling to Galway to make up the numbers.
Galwegians, however, will have been boosted by last weekend’s 9-8 victory over Buccaneers - if not the performance - and they are likely to have some Connacht players available to select, including scrumhalf Kieran Campbell, Michael Swift, Brian McGovern John Lyne, Ronan Loughney, or John Hearty.
Last weekend Galwegians’ pack was clearly superior against Buccaneers, and they certainly made the difference, coupled with Robert O’Beirne who was solid at fullback.
While Buccaneers’ pack looked disinterested, their strength was in the backline, and with Connacht’s Danny Riordan, Aidan Wynne, and scrumhalf Conor O’Loughlin in action, they always looked threatening. They were into action quickly, necessitating some early defensive cover from Barry Lee to stop Riordan scoring an early try, but thereafter, Galwegians started to get on top, particularly in the set piece.
When Buccaneers’ outhalf Simon Rolleston was penalised for a dangerous tackle, Robert O’Beirne was on target with the resulting kick, and although he missed a second attempt seven minutes later, Galwegians shaded most of the exchanges in a poor opening half, marked by a host of handling errors from both sides.
As Ivan Muldoon once again led by example for Galwegians, aided by flanker Liam Scahill, indiscipline cost Buccaneers another three points eight minutes before half time and O’Beirne capitalised with a penalty from the 22. However Wegians lacked sufficient clinical finishing to make their dominance count, giving possession away too cheaply with too many forced passes and dropped balls. It provided Buccaneers with the platform to attack, created in the main by Riordan, who was particularly influential, O’Loughlin, who gave his Connacht counterpart Campbell a hard time, and youngsters Sean Carey and Alan Gaughan. Gaughan struck a fine penalty from the 10m line midway through the second half to come within three, and they could have levelled soon after but Gaughan’s effort hit off the upright.
However the home side continued to take the game to Galwegians during this period with No 8 Adrian Hanley leading the pack, and Paul Harte coming close to the try line. Their efforts were rewarded when O’Loughlin ran a penalty, and although their was no way through for the forwards, eventually Riordan skipped inside the cover to grab a 71st minute try, which Gaughan failed to convert.
It put Buccaneers into the lead for the first time in the match, and it looked like Galwegians had imploded until they staged a late rally. John Cleary was unlucky after a raid down the right wing, but with O’Beirne and Cleary combining on the counterattack, it gave their side the territorial advantage they needed. When Kevin Moran was penalised in the ruck, O’Beirne judged his 80th minute kick perfectly to ensure Galwegians took the spoils that they only just deserved.
Certainly they will have to improve against a hungrier and confident Ballynahinch on Saturday. The Ulster outfit is certainly riding a high this season. Already this year they celebrated a historic win when they were victorious against Queens by 38 - 9 in the Ulster Senior League final - their first Ulster title in their 15 years as a senior club. They then followed up with a 15 - 14 win over Shannon, who ousted Galwegians at the semi-finals stage last year.
Crucial to their squad is the form of their New Zealand outhalf Ryan Bambry. He was on target with five penalties against the reigning cup champions Shannon at Coonagh and gave them a 12 - 0 lead at the break before his fifth in deepest injury-time ensured the Ulstermen grabbed a victory against the odds. They also boast a useful pack that had the upper hand against Shannon at times, an ability to keep the ball in hand, and a hunger.
The two sides played each other last season in the cup with Galwegians prevailing, but Ballynahinch will arrive in Galway with different aspirations this season. Galwegians have the credentials and the home advantage, and they should grab this opportunity to advance to another semi-final.