Clogher Valley are the early front runners in Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 2C, and that is no surprise given their winning mentality honed on the battlegrounds of the Ulster Rugby Championship and Energia All-Ireland Junior Cup.
Stephen Bothwell’s men are sitting pretty with a perfect 30 points at the top of the table, but now face two big tests of their promotion credentials with away trips to their two closest rivals.
Clogher visit second-placed Galwegians tomorrow before travelling a week later to Enniscorthy, who currently occupy third spot. The Valley’s flying winger Taine Haire has been on fire with seven tries in the last five rounds.
Clogher captain Paul Armstrong has impressed with a 50-point haul, made up of four tries and 14 successful kicks, while number 8 Callum Smyton has been the pick of the forwards, chipping in with three tries and winning a couple of player-of-the-match awards.
Galwegians are the only other unbeaten team left in the division. They scored late in their last two wins over Bangor (28-26) and Enniscorthy (22-13), maintaining a promising start in their bid to bounce straight back from relegation.
“Maybe last year we might have struggled to hold out that game (against Enniscorthy), but this year there has been a difference in mentality change,” said ‘Wegians assistant coach Shane O’Brien.
“A couple of the players we’ve brought in this year are used to winning games so having their voices and experience helps.”
The addition of experienced Welshman Garyn Daniels, coupled with captain Jack Winters’ move to loosehead prop, has notably improved ‘Wegians’ set-piece game. Connacht Academy duo Shane Mallon and Finn Treacy have scored nine tries between them.
Enniscorthy, with Brett Igoe now their head coach, and Bruff complete the current top four on 21 points each. There is some notable separation with a seven-point gap to Clonmel in fifth place.
‘Scorthy have racked up some big scores at home, putting 50 points or more on both Ballina and Tullamore. Ireland Under-19 squad member Connor Fahy has looked the part in midfield, and returning hooker Davie Murphy has led a strong lineout platform.
Fast starts have been key to some of the Wexford club’s best results. They will be looking to make the most out of back-to-back home games when they entertain Midleton and Clogher in two crunch clashes.
Bruff have not done much wrong, their only loss coming at the hands of the league leaders. They erased a 21-point deficit to defeat Enniscorthy and fought back for a dramatic draw with Galwegians. Vice-captain Cillian Rea has notched three tries from number 8.
Clonmel beat Omagh Academicals and Ballina to end the last block of fixtures on a high. Full-back Conor Hogan ran in three tries during those victories, but they have been reliant on Josef O’Connor’s precise goal-kicking (74 points) for over half of their points so far.
Just three points cover Midleton, Tullamore and Omagh in the current standings, with the Offaly men edging out Midleton 32-26 last time out when strong-carrying number 8 Colm Heffernan was their player-of-the-match.
None of the three clubs have won away from home so far this season, although Midleton went mightily close when losing by the minimum margin in Omagh. The Red Devils’ five bonus points show they are not far off putting together some better results.
Summer arrivals Fionn McGibney, James Morrisson and Idris Rqibi have quickly made their mark for Midleton. A lieutenant in the Defence Forces, back rower Rqibi has stepped up as captain in the last two rounds.
Young New Zealander Connor Watherston-Spencer will be looking to get Omagh’s back-line firing in the lead up to Christmas. Tomorrow’s Ulster derby trip to bottom side Bangor has a huge amount riding on it for both teams.
It is a strange quirk of the 2023/24 fixtures that Bangor have played the current top six sides up to this point, and will take on the three teams above them in the table over the next three Saturdays.
Having had their moments against both ‘Wegians and Clogher, Dave Irwin’s Seasiders are targeting a big 80-minute performance against Omagh to turn their campaign around. Michael Weir leads a back row that is a handful when they get going.
Second-from-bottom Ballina were the lowest scorers across the first six rounds, averaging 15 points per game. However, they enjoyed a positive November, picking up six points with Ian West’s bonus point try ending their losing run against Tullamore.
The Moy men have started to convert more chances in attack, allied to defensive improvements and sharper decision-making. The Quinn brothers have typified that resilience, with scrum half Cian weighing in with tries against Clogher and Clonmel.
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