Sleeping giants ready to explode into action
League winners Garbally can end Cup drought, writes Tony Ward
One school has dominated Connacht Schools rugby, over the past two years and that of course is Marist College, Athlone under the passionate guidance of Mick Loftus. Robbie Henshaw is being hailed as the man to replace Brian O'Driscoll in the ireland No 13 jersey when the great man retires, and fellow marist old boys Jack Carty and Saba Meunargia are starting to make waves with Connacht.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of a vibrant professional game in the west. It means that up-and-coming players of this quality can aspire to wearing the provincial green and beyond.
There may not be comparable numbers or a comparable tradition relative to the other three provinces, but that is the very reason why the propagation of underage rugby (school and youth) in the Cinderella province is every bit as important, to the future of Irish rugby at every level.
So what of 2014? Well, I wouldn't say that the three-in-a-row is beyond Marist, but this season's form, allied to representative involvement, makes League finalists Garbally and Sligo Grammar the favourites.
The reasons behind Garbally's temporary decline have been well documented here and elsewhere, but signs are (they were runners-up to Marist in 2013) that the sleeping giant is stirring.
The recent trend suggests that the pre-Christmas League finalists usually live up to that form come cup time. So I reckon Garbally, as league winners, and Sligo, the close runners-up, the teams to beat.
The Jes (Colaiste Iognaid) have been the most successful school (ahead of the Grammar) since the new Millennium, chalking up six titles in that period.
They will always be there or thereabouts as, indeed, will be the hat-trick chasing Marist, despite fielding a relatively young side.
And yet again this year, in the substantial attempt at increasing the number of competitive cup matches, a Champions League-style system, comprising two pools of four (three in each last year), will again operate.
In Pool A, with due respect to the Bish (St Joseph's, Galway) and Clifden, the decider will be the clash of Sligo and Marist on January 30, with both schools likely to have secured their place in the semi-finals at that stage.
In Pool B, Garbally will be favoured to finish top, but it could well be a tighter scrap given the presence of the Jes, Rice College (Junior Cup winners in 2011 and 2012) and a talented Summerhill College squad. That said, traditional giants Garbally and the Jes will be favoured to join Sligo and Marist in the final four.
That would make for the same semi-finalists as last year, whereby Marist trumped Sligo (28-19) and Garbally accounted for the Jes (11-8), before the Athlone school went on to complete the most successful year in their history.
It has a more competitive feel in 2014, but I'm going for Garbally to complete the League and Cup double by taking the most coveted prize in Connacht rugby back to Ballinasloe for the first time since 2007 (when beating Marist 25-18).