The ninth final of the hugely successful Ulster Bank All-Ireland Junior Cup competition has two clubs that are looking to put their name on the trophy for the very first time – Clogher Valley and Enniscorthy. Knockon.ie’s Rob Murphy previews the decider.
ULSTER BANK ALL-IRELAND JUNIOR CUP FINAL: Saturday, February 1
CLOGHER VALLEY v ENNISCORTHY, Ashbrook, Coolmine RFC, 2.30pm
Last year’s beaten finalists Enniscorthy are back for more this weekend as they look to make it six out of nine for Leinster sides in the competition, while Clogher Valley are in their first final and looking to become the third Ulster outfit to collect the crown.
CLOGHER VALLEY –
Heading into the final there is no question as to which side is showing the better form. Clogher Valley are six points clear in the top flight of the Ulster Qualifying League and have an Ulster Towns Cup quarter-final to look forward to after a big victory over Ballyclare last weekend.
That result was a landmark as it was their tenth victory in succession in all competitions since they lost to the same opponents in the Ulster Junior Cup back in November. The 8-6 loss at the Antrim club set a marker for David Black’s squad. They absorbed the disappointment and have not looked back.
Two weeks ago, they produced their best display of the season to date in overcoming title rivals Portadown at their home venue of Chambers Park and denying them even a losing bonus in the 19-10 victory.
A second Ulster league title in three years now looks on the cards and the Round Round Ulster Bank League qualifiers are on the horizon.
The Wexford club have won four of their last five games in all competitions, including the semi-final win over Portadown, the South East League final victory against Kilkenny and home wins over Clondalkin and Tullow in the Leinster League.
The only defeat was a ten-point loss after a battling display away to unbeaten champions-elect Wanderers. The problem for ‘Scorthy is their away form. At home, they are strong.
Since losing to Wanderers back in September, Declan O’Brien’s side have won seven in a row in all competitions, yet away from Ross Road it is a different story.
They have lost five in the league with their only victories of note coming against Clondalkin in the league and against Kilkenny in the South East decider at Carlow RFC.
PATHS TO THE FINAL:
CLOGHER VALLEY –
The toughest challenge en route to the final for the Fivemiletown side this year came in round one at the Cran where it took a late, late try to beat Munster league leaders Kanturk in a 10-9 triumph.
Kilfeacle and District were dispatched with little fuss in the last-eight, while their most impressive performance came away to Skibbereen in the semi-final.
Last year’s runners-up are competing in the national cup competition for just the second season which means their only defeat so far was the 2012/13 final against Tullamore.
This year, home draws have helped. They were too strong for CIYMS in their opener, built up a big first half lead and held on against Coolmine in the quarter-finals and won a nail-biting game against Portadown at the semi-final stage.
VIEW FROM THE CAMP:
David Wrafter (Enniscorthy manager)
“They are very strong but we have improved immeasurably in the last two months and we’ve lost just the one game in five now.
“This year has been transitional in terms of player turnaround but the form of young players like Thomas Stamp, Peader O’Mahony, Danny Pim and Jack Kelly has been a real plus.
“We know that Clogher Valley are beating all in front of them in the Q1 League in Ulster but we are not too bad.
“We have a great reputation historically in cup competitions and the lads will give it everything. I am fairly confident we can pull it off but it should be a cracking match.”
As with all finals, the closer we get to kick-off, the harder it gets to call. Clogher Valley are favourites and have been since the semi-finals back in December. If anything they should be even strong favourites based on form.
Their winning streak is up to ten games now, an incredible run of form in the kind of hectic winter schedule that is common place for Ulster sides competing in an 18-game league season, a Towns Cup, the Ulster Junior Cup and All-Ireland Junior Cup.
To put that into context, by the end of this season, Clogher Valley might break the 30-game mark if they maintain their commanding lead in Qualifying League 1, reach the Towns Cup semi-finals at least and reach the Round Robin qualifiers.
The strength in depth in their panel has been key to all this. Their 2nds have performed well too this season – incidentally they will be in Crawford Cup action against Ballymoney this Saturday at the Cran, while this final is taking place and the 22-man panel has a number of players who have benefited from games at that level.
It all adds up well for Clogher. Injuries have been a concern with Kyle Cobain and club captain Stephen Baxter missing key games in recent weeks but both are back and in the panel, albeit on the bench for Saturday.
The talent in reserve is striking with Rodney Bennett also among the forward cover at hooker and David Speer and Alistair Breen both capable of making an impact in the backline.
On the field, the threat is an all round one. The scrum will be strong, Barry John Wilson at number 6 and Ryan Wilson at number 8 will carry a lot of ball.
Scrum half Aaron Best is key man and he has been in electric form in recent wins of Portadown and Ballyclare. The back-line threat is considerable, Andrew Breen and Paul Armstrong are prolific try scorers this season and will need to be marshalled.
So, what of the underdog and why are their odds shortening in most eyes as this final approaches? Enniscorthy had to ride their luck a little against Portadown back in December, but that was a huge victory over a strong Ulster contender and the confidence garnered in the camp was key.
This has been a testing season for the management. They lost a number of key components in their squad at the start of the season.
Flanker Tony Ryan made the step up to senior level with Clontarf and he has been a star man throughout their Division 1A campaign, Mitchell Dalton and Alan Jacob emigrated as did Tim Morrissey from the pack.
It started slowly and much of the campaign has been spent in the relegation zone – they are still not safe with two rounds remaining – yet things have certainly changed for the better in recent weeks as the young squad players who have stepped into the breach this season have grown in confidence.
The likes of Thomas Stamp in the second row who was man-of-the-match in their last outing against Tullow, Jim White in the back row and half-backs Jack Kelly and Evan Lett have all made the step up and are now fully set in their positions. Young David O’Dwyer is in top try-scoring form for good measure.
The experience then comes from Ross Barbour at full-back, Ivan Poole at centre, coaches Damien McCabe and Declan O’Brien and front row stalwarts Luke Goff and John Howe.
The balance is better than it has been at any point since this time last year and in many ways it is even better as Mitchell Dalton is back from Australia and ready to make a big impact.
Yet, if you ask folk in Fivemiletown, they will tell you that this current Clogher Valley team could be even better than their 2012/13 Junior Cup winners or 2011/12 Junior League winners.
There is a sense that the time is now for the Tyrone club and only Enniscorthy can stop them when it comes to the national cup.
The favourites tag is justified and it will not weigh heavily on the shoulders of the Ulster side, but Enniscorthy have timed their own surge in form nicely and have an advantage when it comes to experience having gone through the final day nerves last season. They will have learned a lot from that which should help make this a fascinating contest.
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Clogher Valley to win by two points
ALL-IRELAND JUNIOR CUP PAST WINNERS:
2006: Rainey Old Boys
2010: City of Derry
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