JAMES NEVILLE takes a detailed look at the fortunes of West Cork’s three competing teams in Munster Junior League Division 1 as we enter the second half of the season
THE Munster Junior League returns this Sunday after its customary annual six-week hiatus with Clonmel out in front after a perfect seven wins from seven outings. The Tipperary side are going for their third title in a row under the stewardship of ex-Munster and Ireland back row forward Denis Leamy.
Hot on their heels are Clanwilliam and Newcastlewest. These two sides meet this weekend at Clanwilliam Park and defeat for the home side would see them relinquish any realistic title ambitions.
Newcastlewest, after an opening day defeat away to Muserry have won six on the trot and have been involved some thrilling matches. They were also only knocked out of the Challenge Cup against Bandon at Old Chapel at the semi-final stage recently on the ‘number of tries scored rule’ after a bruising extra-time 20-20 draw.
There is not a lot between the teams placed fifth to tenth with sides having one eye on avoiding getting sucked into a relegation battle whilst also having the carrot of a top-four finish and the prospect of All-Ireland Junior Cup rugby next season.
For the three West Cork sides competing in Division 1, there has been contrasting fortunes. Bandon, currently sitting in fourth place, will look for a top four finish at the very least, which would see them gain entry to the All-Ireland Junior Cup for a second successive year, having made their inaugural appearance in that competition earlier this season, where they beat Instonians in Belfast before succumbing to powerful Co Meath outfit Ashbourne in the next round.
Bandon are seven points behind league leaders Clonmel, and with the top three sides all due to play each other, there is the outside chance of Bandon making a late title charge if they can win all of their remaining fixtures.
They will also, in all probability, need to pick up a few winning bonus points along the way. They have only managed to score four tries in a single league game once so far, achieved in their last outing away to Skibbereen, and while their defensive record is second only to Clonmel, their ‘points for’ tally is the poorest of the top eight sides. This is something they will expect to improve upon as head coach Regis Sonnes, formerly forwards coach to Top 14 side Begles Bordeaux and ex Spanish national coach, continues to stamp his influence on the side.
However the prospect of a Junior Cup run after last Sunday’s victory at home to Kilfeacle and the upcoming Junior Clubs Challenge Cup final against the same opposition on February 26th may occupy their focus and push league priorities to the side somewhat. Captain Tom Ferguson has been in excellent form this season in the back row and his pack need to continue to provide the platform that will bring the dangerous Bandon backs into play, with Kerry Desmond and Gearoid Crowley in particular causing headaches for opponents.
At the other end of the table, things are slightly more complicated. The amount of teams that can be relegated from the league could be anything between one and four, depending on how the league champions fare in the end of season round robin – played out between the four junior league provincial champions – and also the fortunes of the Munster sides in the ten-team Division 2C of the All Ireland League.
The team that finishes bottom of 2C will automatically exit the senior ranks with the second from bottom side meeting the round robin runners-up in a play-off. Bruff (seventh) seem to have found some form of late and are slowly climbing the table while Kanturk (ninth) currently occupy the relegation play-off position. The only certainty in this regard is that two teams are automatically promoted from Division 2 of the Munster Junior League and that Division 1 will have 14 sides competing in it again next season.
Given the disjointed nature of the competitions structure in Munster and the form of the Ulster and Leinster sides in the All-Ireland Cup, it is difficult to see the Munster champions, whoever they turn out to be, breaking into the All-Ireland League at the end of the season. Therefore there is a good chance that there will be a repeat of the 2014/15 season when three sides were relegated, with Cobh being the unlucky side on that occasion.
Occupying the bottom four positions in Munster from the top down are Skibbereen, Muskery, Clonakilty (who all meet each other in 2017) and the seemingly doomed Old Christians. Given the form of the sides above them thus far, these sides will most likely remain in the bottom four come the end of the season. It is simply a question of in what order. Whoever can emerge top of this quartet will most likely preserve their Division 1 status.
Skibbereen (11th) are on eight points and kick start their new year with the unenviable prospect of travelling to league leaders and reigning champions Clonmel. With their only two league victories coming at home, a win here seems highly unlikely, even though Clonmel are prone to the odd slip up, as shown in their run in last season.
Skibb will need to target their three home games particularly, with Muskerry in their penultimate game on March 5th looking their most likely prospect of an away scalp. Indeed home advantage seems to be a big factor across the board with 32 of the total 49 league fixtures to date (65 per cent) being won by the home side.
Squad depth is a concern for Skibb, with both coaches Declan Coppinger and Denis McCarthy still togging out regularly. The return from abroad of second row/back row Kevin Coombes is therefore a timely boost for the second half of the season and adds a genuine lineout option to a pack that has proved a handful for a few sides this season, with number eight and captain Kieran Shannon being their standout player.
Clonakilty (13th) on seven points, who flew the flag for senior rugby for so long in West Cork, face the possible return to Division 2 for the first time since 1999/00. They are under severe pressure and restart their campaign with an away trip to Old Christians on Sunday. This is an absolutely must-win game for Steve Forde’s men, and while Old Christians, in theory, should be their easiest game of the season, the men from Rathcooney are capable of producing some memorable performances, with last season’s 13-13 draw with Clonmel springing to mind.
Clon’s most eye-catching fixture at this stage looks to be the game against Skibbereen on February 12th, which is shaping up to be equally important for both sides. Skibbereen have won this fixture for the previous two seasons. Last year the kicking skills of Denis McCarthy edged them over the line in a tight 12-9 finish and his trusty right boot and the fact that the game takes place in The Showgrounds may tilt the balance when the sides meet in four weeks’ time.
Clonakilty have developed a habit over the last number of seasons of starting games at a blistering pace, often building up a solid lead at half time, before fading away after the break.
With four of their six remaining games being away from home, they will need more consistency over the 80 minutes if they are to avoid the drop. They are a very young side and captain Olan Deane will look to the likes of Joe Crowley at scrum half and Batt Duggan at hooker to inspire his men in the coming two months.