Connacht rugby journalist Rob Murphy takes a look at one of the most anticipated of this weekend’s AIB Junior Cup first round matches – the Mayo derby between Castlebar and Westport.
AIB JUNIOR CUP FIRST ROUND: Saturday, January 5
Castlebar v Westport, Cloondeash, 2pm
There have been one or two crucial derby clashes between Castlebar and Westport down through the years but never has one game between these two sides had as much at stake.
The AIB Junior Cup competition is now fully established as a marquee event in the domestic rugby calendar and Castlebar’s inaugural game could not be more important.
The 16-team open draw has paired the fierce rivals together with one Connacht side guaranteed to advance in this competition for the first time ever.
This is, without question, the tie of the round and it has been designated so by the competition sponsors AIB.
Westport enter the tie as favourites despite trailing their near neighbours by three points in the Connacht League table. They have a game in hand and their three defeats so far this season have all been by less than seven points.
The momentum is starting to turn in the Bulls’ favour and they will relish the trip to Cloondeash.
If Castlebar are to upset the odds and make the home advantage count they will need to match the Bulls up front and give their talented backs time and space to create the chances.
However, they will be facing a rejuvenated Westport three-quarter line boosted by the inclusion of Mayo Gaelic footballer James Gill, who could be a key component in the centre for the visitors.
Westport are short on match practice having played just once in December due to cancellations. In that game they secured an impressive victory over Corrib on home turf and, by all accounts, the 2006 Junior League champions played their best rugby of the season so far.
For Castlebar the question marks are once again to the fore at the midway point in the season. A blistering start saw them pull clear at the top of the table and secure a District League final place, only for the momentum to be lost with a heavy defeat away to Monivea and a draw away to winless Tuam.
Some say we have already seen the best of Castlebar this season. Their coach Seamus King is aware of the criticism.
“This is a perennial challenge for us. In previous campaigns we have got to this point in the season in good shape only to fall away, but sooner or later we are going to get it right and why not now.
“We have a good mix of youth and power up front and youth and pace out wide. We have never seen such numbers at training as we have had this season and there is a real feeling that we are capable of pushing on from here,” said King.
The signs certainly are good for Castlebar this season. There second team is flying in Division Two and look like genuine contenders even at this early stage.
In Division One they have lost just twice in the league and sit in fourth place, second among the junior clubs and are very much in contention for another top four place amongst the junior sides which would secure entry into next season’s AIB Cup.
Paul Coady and Marty McNicholas are the main injury concerns for the home side and both will be key losses for King if they do not make the contest, but this season the have a back row with experience and power behind a front five that have made major strides.
The season began with a string of narrow defeats for Westport that proved to be a considerable set back. Player-coach Eddie Walsh feels they should have won at least two of those but the defeats have not affected the morale and they seem ready for a gritty cup battle according to the long serving out-half.
“There is a good feeling in the camp at the moment, some of the younger lads like Ryan Cafferkey and Kevin Corcoran have give the squad a fresh boost this season and they, along with the rest of the squad, are beginning to really find there form,” Walsh admitted.
“A local derby like this always has a lot at stake but this is extra special – it is a day when grinding out even the narrowest of victories is all that matters.”
Walsh and his fellow Westport coach Marius Bosman will be well aware that on paper they have the stronger side, especially in the tight five.
But they will also be aware that Castlebar have a golden opportunity to shed the underachievers’ tag with one game. There is a lot at stake and there will not be a lot between these two sides come full-time on Saturday.
– For more of Rob Murphy’s articles on Connacht club rugby and the province’s senior team, please visit www.knockon.ie