KIERAN McCARTHY looks back at the Munster Junior League Division 1 campaigns for West Cork’s three teams - Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen - which produced a mixed bag and has left Clon still in relegation trouble
FOR the second season in a row, Bandon have finished in the top three in Division 1 of the Munster Junior League – a sign of the consistency that the club wants.
They came up from Division 2 in 2015 and instantly made an impact, finishing second in the 2015/16 season, and while they ended in third place this time around, they accumulated more points this year (46) than last season (44). They also won more games this year (10) than the previous season (9).
Speaking to The Southern Star last month, Dan Murphy noted that for years the club ‘had a habit of bouncing up and down’, but Bandon wants a consistency in its squad and its approach, and that is yielding results.
This season, Bandon finished third in the league, they contested the final of the Junior Clubs Challenge Cup (losing to Kilfeacle in February) and they’re now through to the Munster Junior Cup final after a stunning 21-10 home win against league champions Clonmel last Sunday.
So far, with the cup final against Young Munster to come on April 16th, Bandon have played 21 games this season, they’ve won 17 and lost only four – that’s a great record by any standards.
At home in fortress Old Chapel, they’re untouchable, winning all six home league games plus their cup ties as well.
Captain Tom Ferguson, one of the best players this season, noted Bandon’s impressive home form ahead of the cup semi-final against Clonmel – who they also beat at Old Chapel in the challenge cup – and what he also added is how important it is for the club to win some silverware. They’re edging closer to that.
Head coach Regis Sonnes, the French import, has made a big difference to the Bandon pack, the front row has been terrific this season – Tim Crowley, Aidan Slattery, Colin Jackson, Scott Kingston and Mike Murphy – and Enda Phelan, Christian Mulcahy, Olan Crowley, Gearoid O’Leary and Kerry Desmond have all been key players for this improving Bandon team which is about the sum of its parts rather than individuals.
With the Munster Junior Cup final to come, as well as the Cork County Cup, Bandon have a lot to play for in the weeks ahead, and they can look back on the league as a job well done.
Season highlight: Take your pick, but we’re going for last Sunday’s excellent 21-10 Munster Junior Cup semi-final win at home to Division 1 champions Clonmel. It was emphatic. But the best could be yet to come in the final.
If Skibbereen could play all their league games at home, they’d be pushing for a top four spot in the league. But it doesn’t work like that.
As it is, they needed a win in the last round of games – 9-0 at home to Galbally – to secure their Division 1 status for next season, and that highlighted one of the team’s big problems from this campaign: they can mix it with the best at home but their away form was poor.
The stats don’t lie. Skibb played 13 league games. They played seven games at home and won five, losing the other two. They scored 114 points at home. They lost all six league games away from home, scoring 57 points in total in those matches (including 21 in the away loss to Kilfeacle).
Manager John Hayes acknowledges that their away form is an issue and needs to be addressed – but he highlights the young profile of this Skibb team.
‘Some games we had eight, nine, ten players under 20 years of age, we have tried to blood players and we have a few older fellas to help them along the way,’ Hayes said.
‘It’s a very tough division for young fellas to come into, junior rugby is very physical and it’s hard, but they did well.’
Tadhg Cullinane (18) had a superb season at tight head prop, holding his own against seasoned pros. Second row Kevin Coombes, centre Tom Bushe, back rower Greg O’Mahony, winger Rory Hone and full back Donal Collins all got another season under their belts, back rower Jack Breen came back from injury at the end of the campaign, Jan Donnelly got his chance late on.
Throw in that Gavin Coombes, Liam Coombes and Dave McCarthy are now all playing AIL and you can appreciate the talent on the Skibb RFC conveyor belt.
The experienced core of Declan Coppinger, Ritchie Byrne and Mike Limerick were immense, as were centre Denis McCarthy, outhalf Ger Hurley and prop Mike Calnan.
Inconsistency followed Skibb this season but that will happen with a young team and they’ll take great heart from producing results when they needed to, winning three of their last five league games; again, all at home.
‘It was a tough season, very stop-start. We had some great results – beating Garryowen (6-3) in the Munster Junior Cup, beating Richmond at home in the league – but then we would lose away to teams we’d expect to beat.
‘We’d put in a great performance one week but not back it up the next – but when we need a big performance and result at the end against Galbally, the lads delivered.’
Season highlight: The 6-3 away win in Munster Junior Cup against Garryowen, thanks to two Denis McCarthy penalties.
Clonakilty are playing a waiting game to discover if they will survive in Division 1. It’s out of their hands.
Finishing third from bottom of the division – on the same points as Skibb but the latter won more games – there’s still a chance that Clonakilty could be relegated, depending on Kanturk’s survival/relegation in AIL Division 2C.
All Clon can do right now is sit tight and hope that Kanturk can fight their way out of their relegation worries.
It’s far from ideal, as manager Steve Forde admits.
‘I’m disappointed that we finished in the position we did, that late try in the defeat (14-13) against Newcastlewest – who finished second in the league – in our last game has put us in the situation that we are in.’
Clon won only three of their 13 league games and losing their first five matches had them on the back foot from the very start, while they won only one of their six home league games. In junior rugby, you need to win your home games. Clon didn’t.
But this isn’t a tale of doom and gloom, despite Clon sweating over their Division 1 future. Steve Forde and his management team, and the club, have given youth its fling in the knowledge that while there might be short-term pain, there will be long-term gains.
‘You have to have a pathway in the club and that’s what we want and are building,’ Forde explained.
‘We are building a team here.
‘A lot of underage players have come into the structure and have done really well. We have one of the youngest teams in the league. At times that’s a blessing because you want these players to develop but in certain games against experienced individuals that can cost you as well.
‘I’ve been coaching long enough to know that you need to go through that bit of pain for these young guys to develop and go on to become super players.’
Clon’s captain is 19-year-old Olan Deane, while Diarmuid Cadogan, Donal McSweeney, John Hodnett, Ross Cantwell, Shane and Oige Scannell, and Mark Purcell are all making an impression. Blend them in with the experience of Courtney Canning and Ger Hurley, and Clon believe that they have a recipe for success, albeit not instant success.
‘Look at next year some of these guys who will be around 19, 20 years old will have played 20 junior games and that’s very encouraging. They’ll get better and better the older they get. There is a superb underage system in the club, great talent and it’s important to develop that talent,’ Forde said.
What’s noticeable about five of Clon’s defeats is that they were by five points or less – 23-18 v St Senan’s, 13-8 v Abbeyfeale, 25-22 v Galbally, 9-8 v Skibbereen, 14-13 v Newcastle West – and that highlights a point that Forde also made when noting that this team weren’t far off winning more league games than just three.
Season highlight: The 25-23 dramatic league win away to Richmond in November, thanks to Mark Purcell’s late, late try gave Clon their first win of the league campaign at the sixth attempt. The draw against Muskerry in January was another key moment and result for this young Clon team.