Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Wards Connacht school-by-school guide

Shane O'Hehir, Summerhill Sligo, in action against Frank Hopkins, 9, and Donnchadh Reilly, Garbally College
Shane O'Hehir, Summerhill Sligo, in action against Frank Hopkins, 9, and Donnchadh Reilly, Garbally College


Portumna Community School upset the old order with three Junior Cup final appearances between 1997 and 2001 (winning two). With the exception of Summerhill (losing out to Marist in 2005) the status quo more or less returned. Until, that is, 2009. Since then Calasanctius College Oranmore, Rice College Westport, St Gerald's Castlebar and CBS Roscommon have all put new names on the Connacht Junior trophy.

Unfortunately to date there has been no natural follow-on in terms of success at Senior, but that has not been helped through key players being effectively talent-spotted and enticed elsewhere to finish their education. CBS Roscommon have contested the last two Junior finals, losing to St Gerald's in 2014 before going one better when beating the Jes comprehensively in last year's decider.

In 2015 they also lifted the Connacht Schools Senior Development League, defeating SCC Carraroe (22-7) in the final. This now represents their first big step into Connacht Senior Cup rugby. It is a great achievement coming on the back of Creggs RFC introducing a rugby programme into the school just five years ago. Club and school have benefited hugely from this partnership.

Voted Connacht Coach of the Year in 2014/15 for his work with CBS and Creggs, former Garryown man Dave Purcell (son of the late John) is the main mentor to a young squad central to those two Junior Cup final appearances over the last two seasons. As current Junior Cup holders they should not be lacking confidence for what lies ahead and yet having lost both JCT captains and interpro players from 2014 (Brian Diffley) and 2015 (James Brandon) to Roscrea, it makes that difficult breakthrough task so much harder.

The Limerick man oversees a squad with Michael Farrell as captain and including 11 back from last year plus 12 of the Junior Cup-winning group from 2015. Prop Melvin Conteh, scrum-half Eoghan Coyle, centre Jason Hoare and out-half Shane Purcell have represented Connacht at under-17 level, while Conteh has also represented the province at under-18.

Remarkably, much like Ardscoil and Castletroy in Limerick (competing in both Harty Cup hurling and Schools cup rugby) and Cistercian College (also combining both hurling and rugby in Leinster), several of the current CBS squad backboned the school's breakthrough in 2015 to the Hogan Cup All Ireland SFC final for the first time, where they lost out to Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne in the Croke Park showdown.

COACHES Dave Purcell (head), Aidan Farrell, Noel Galvin, Patrick O'Farrell and Aaron Hynes.

LAST YEAR Did not compete but won the 2015 Connacht Schools Senior Development League defeating SCC Carraroe (22-7) in the final.

SQUAD Rian Biesty, Dan Butt*, Daire Byrne, Gavin Carberry, Edward Clinton*, Ian Conlon, Melvin Conteh, Eoghan Coyle, Niall Cunniffe, Rory Cunniffe, Sean Doorly*, Patrick Fannon, Michael Farrell* (Captain), Eran Farrell*, Michael Feeley*, James Featherstone, Cian Gately, Jack Harkins, Jason Hoare, Ben McGahan, Theo McGuinness*, James McNally*, Marco Morelli, John Murrsy*, Ryan Murray, Daniel O'Neill, Shane Purcell, Sean Rayner, Conor Shanagher, Ibragim Tsatiashvili* and Dylan Ward*.


With six wins from seven final appearances since the turn of the millennium, the Jes can rightly claim to be one of the current big three alongside Garbally and Sligo Grammar, with Marist slowly but surely sneaking up on the rails.

Last year was a lean one by Jes standards with the Champions Cup-style round robin experiment yielding a most disappointing return of four defeats from the four games played. Hopes are high in Colaiste Iognaid of a much better showing in the ten-team competition this time around.

To that end, Stephen Parkinson is head coach and Conor Galvin assistant of a squad with 13 back from last year and a group that competed well in the pre-Christmas Connacht Senior League, taking six wins from the eight games played and finishing third overall. Both Sligo Grammar and Garbally won seven of the eight, with the Grammar shading it by a single bonus point over their Balinasloe rivals.

Morgan Codyre is out-half and captain of what should prove a very competitive Jes squad. The pivotal playmaker occupied the same role with the Connacht under-18s alongside half-back partner Jasper Byrne and centre Eamon Kelly. These three are pivotal along with Morgan's younger brother Diarmuid, who was out-half on the Connacht under-17 side along with prop Gary Keane.

The Codyre brothers are part of a very talented sporting family, with older sister Katie making the Irish hockey squad a few years ago. Significantly they have avoided Garbally in the pool draw but will face instead the big Sligo two of the Grammar and Summerhill, while St Gerald's and CBS will make for formidable opposition too.


COACHES Stephen Parkinson (head) and Conor Galvin.

LAST YEAR Fifth in League pool.

SQUAD Daragh Coen, Conal Fallon*, Gary Keane, Ross Gorey*, Luca Bartolami, Hugh Keaveney, Jake Gallagher, Cian Parsons*, Jasper Byrne*, Morgan Codyre* (Captain), Thomas Forde, Eamon Kelly*, James Hill*, Ryan Hunt*, David Molloy, Diarmuid Codyre, Diorai O'Connor, Nathan Heaney, Adam Corbett, Cathal McGuinness, Sean Monaghan, Fionn Durkin*, Conor Briscoe, Cillian McCabe, Evin McHugh*, David Dillon*, Jack Grealish, Michael Higgins, Jack Quane*, Cian Gargan* and Darren Geraghty.


Rugby journalist supreme Ned Van Esbeck in his brilliant Irish Rugby History 1874-1999 wrote of Connacht rugby at the close of the last millennium: "Clifden Community School won the Senior Cup in 1975 and more recently schools such as St Sarnan's Ferbane, and Portumna Community School have made considerable impact, as indeed have such as St Muredach's, Ballina. Tremendous work has been done in the west at schools level and that is reflected in the current growth".

Well, 16 years on from that and the message is better again as the Top Oil-sponsored provincial cups boast a record 38 schools across five competitions from Junior Emerging Cup through Junior Developing Cup to Junior Cup. Then up a level to the Senior cycle and Senior Development Cup followed by the main event itself, the Connacht Senior Cup.

For Clifden, the route to the top was extraordinary insofar as it was almost the reverse of the norm. Senior Cup success in 1975 was followed by their only Junior Cup win, in 1976. However, recent Senior Development Cup final appearances, albeit culminating in narrow defeats to the Bish (14-12) in 2012 and to St Enda's in 2013 (10-7), suggests a definite re-awakening.

Former Connacht and Connemara All Blacks full-back Henry O'Toole is head coach, assisted by Bernard Keaney to a Clifden squad led by son Henry and including 16 back from last year's extended cup panel.

Junior is certainly a chip off the old block, having already represented Connacht schools in rugby as well as lining out along with Emmet Moran for the Galway Minor footballers. Aaron O'Donoghue and Ian Staunton have also represented Connacht under-18s against the Exiles and South Africa.

Having missed out on pre-Christmas involvement in the Schools Senior Premier League, it is a tough ask now alongside Garbally, Marist, St Muredach's and the Bish in Pool 1. That said, the experience alone will be of immense benefit in future.

COACHES Henry O'Toole, Bernard Keaney, Peter Smyth and Jimmy O'Toole.

LAST YEAR Did not compete.

SQUAD Henry O'Toole* (Captain), Emmet Moran*, Enda Conneely*, Paul Lee*, Jack Gavin*, Shane Conroy*, Thomas Mannion*, Jack Goldsmith O'Halloran*, Dylan McEvoy Keaney* James O'Farrell*, Nicholas Joyce*, Aaron O'Donoghue*, Kevin King*, Rory Ward*, Maurice Prendergast*, Tommy Mullen*, Liam Wlodarczyk, Niall King, Ian Staunton, Sean Kennedy, Ehan Mannion and John Conneely.


Three years ago saw a very special year in the rugby annals of Marist College. They were Senior League and Cup Winners, Senior 7s winners, Junior League and Cup winners as well as 1st Year Cup winners in 2013. And to all that add Robbie Henshaw's first three international caps for Ireland.

Such a special year can never be bettered and yet with the Junior League for 2015/16 already in the locker and the Seniors beaten ever so narrowly by Sligo Grammar and Garbally in the Senior equivalent, the signs are of a new generation making things happen in the Athlone school.

Bear in mind this is the Junior Cup-winning squad from 2013 now in Leaving Cert year and having had to play the Premier League campaign without Luke Carty the captain and string-puller in midfield (whether playing 10 or 12). Carty represented Ireland on last season's under-18s and is the younger brother of Ben (Senior League and Senior Cup-winning out-half in 2012) and of Jack from the Senior side in 2011 and now thriving in the outside-half position with Connacht.

The inspirational Mick Loftus is again coach and manager alongside Niall Moran and Darin Classens, who take the forwards and backs respectively. Luke Carty is captain of a squad that includes 13 back from last year. The talented out-half-cum-centre has also played Minor football with Roscommon and is currently involved with the Irish under-19s, although he has been out of action following surgery in September but is due to return in time for the cup.

Corey Reid is an exciting centre/full-back and is involved with the Irish under-18s, having represented Connacht at that level over the last two seasons, while Michael Hanley and James Kelly are both currently involved with the Connacht under-17 and under-18 squads.

Off the field the school is now into year two of its alliance with the Athlone Institute of Technology Sport Science Department, which sees students of the third-level college working with Marist players in the area of sports therapy and rehabilitation as well as strength and conditioning. The students assist with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injuries and also deliver first aid during training sessions and games.

COACHES Mick Loftus, Darin Classens, Niall Moran, Gavin Weir, Mick Hughes, Craig Reddan and Conor Bruce.

LAST YEAR Finished fourth in League just missing out on Final qualification.

SQUAD Luke Carty* (Captain), Kieran Rigney*, Brian Stack*, Michael Hanley, Oisin Langan, Daniel Hickey, Paul Omokuro*, Cian McBrearty, Robert Teape, Ted Brosnan, Aaron Malone, Jamie O'Keefe*, Tadgh Prendergast, Jamie Milling, Brian Collins*, Patrick Browne*, Kristian Jocher*, Conor Mulvihill, Eoghan Kenny, James Kelly, Corey Reid*, Killian Fox, Jamie Donoghue*, Robert Joyce*, Conor McGlone, Fabian Cooke, Colin Daly*, Daniel McGlynn*, Tommy Glynn, Blessed Tanyaradzwa Muzengeza, William O'Meara, Breen Elliot and Jimmy Curley.


Because of its location in the heart of Mayo GAA country, Gaelic football is very much to the fore and the main sport at St Gerald's, although the school has enjoyed great success in basketball too in the '90s. It is very much a rich breeding ground for Mayo Gaelic football, with greats such as Aidan O'Shea, Cillian O'Connor and James Horan nurtured in St Gerald's.

It is against that backdrop that what has been achieved in recent seasons on the rugby field is truly remarkable. I think it fair to say that the seeds were sown for last year's extraordinary Junior Cup success when in 2011 the Castlebar hotbed of Gaelic Football contested the Junior Development Final, losing out narrowly (10-5) to Sligo Grammar. St Gerald's were also Connacht under-16 League champions in 2013, beating the Bish (24-5) in the final that year.

With the recently appointed indefatigable Connacht Schools Chairman Chris Davies the driving force, progress has been steady and one way. Paddy Durcan and Eimhin Griffin lead a hugely committed coaching team and while it will probably be another year before many of that cup-winning squad from 2014 reach full maturation, the pre-Christmas League results have been encouraging, with just a single score the difference against St Muredach's and against current cup holders Garbally.

As St Gerald's did not enter the Senior Cup last year there are no players returning, but all bar five of the current squad will be back on board again in 12 months. Full-back/centre Mark Balaski is captain and one of five St Gerald's players to have represented Connacht at under-18 level this season.

Others include prop/hooker Gearoid Cramp, No 8 Jack Heavey, hooker/No 8 Darragh King, hooker Sean Tonra and scrum-half Barry Walsh. Walsh was the provincial captain and just missed out on the interpros, although he was involved in England in the pre-season friendlies. The same talented sportsman also represents Ireland in kickboxing as well as Connacht at under-17 age grade, for which he is still eligible. Versatile back-row forward Richard Newcombe is the younger brother of prominent Castlebar Mitchel's footballer Donal Newcombe.

St Gerald's have been drawn in Pool 2 with the big Sligo two but this year we suspect is built largely around gaining that all-important experience, but don't rule out a win or two along the way.

COACHES Paddy Durcan, Eimhin Griffith, Jason Keane, Robbie Carson, Martin Cramp and Vincent O'Callaghan.

LAST YEAR Didn't compete. However, all but five will be eligible next year.

SQUAD Patrick Corless, Gearoid Cramp, Ronan Curran, Matthew Flynn, Eoin Geary, Jack Heavey, Robert Hughes, Irmantus Katkevicius, Darragh King, Ultan McDyer, Abid Ahammed, Mark Balaski (Captain), Cathal Brohan, Lorcan Cox, Keelan Finnan, Peter Gleeson, James Hughes, Jesse Murphy, Saran O'Callaghan, Eoin Togher, Richard Newcombe, Sean O'Connell, Tomas Prendergast, Niall Quinn, Sean Tonra and Barry Walsh.


Given that the first title at Senior level was achieved as far back as 1918 and the last (when beating Sligo Grammar) in 1994, it is an ongoing battle for the Bish to stay the pace with big guns Garbally, the Jes, the Grammar and the Marist in Athlone.

However, as a school with just the five-year cycle, there are limits to what can be achieved. The Nun's Island school continues its great and varied sporting tradition. In 2015 the under 17 'A' soccer team won the All Ireland title, while the Junior Gaelic Football team were Connacht League and Cup champions, with the basketball team lifting the National Senior 'A' title.

Amidst those complex demands, rugby at the Bish has continued to rise in recent years. In 2012 the under-14 squad, containing many of this year's Senior panel, lifted the Connacht title by beating CBS Roscommon in the Ballyhaunis final. The Junior team has been consistently challenging for top honours over recent years with consecutive league final appearances as well as coming up just short in last year's Connacht Cup semi-final.

The Senior squad got back on the winning rostrum last year too, when lifting the Connacht Development Cup by way of a hard-won victory over Clifden. It closed a gap of six years since the last success in that competition, when they beat Summerhill in 2009.

The unfortunate loss of six starting players - four moved school and two opted for Gaelic football, five of whom were playing underage with Connacht - had a major impact on the team, particularly the loss of last year's captain and out-half Rory Gaffney (brother of Irish under-20 international Ciaran).

Skipper Calum Heapes, out-half Antoine Hubert, centre Cian Kerrigan and prop Ronan Corless all played in last year's final. Dylan Tierney has lined out at under-18 level for the province. Talented midfielder and local boxer Marcus Burke has been impressing all season, while Ewan Heapes (brother of captain Calum) and Irish sprinting medallist Sean Kilmartin provide the finishing power.

For Colin Joyce and his backroom staff, a promising pre-Christmas League campaign with two wins on top of narrow defeats to the Grammar and the Jes augurs well.


COACHES Colin Joyce, Jason Mitchell, Derek Murray and Steven Mason.

LAST YEAR Did not compete.

SQUAD Ronan Corless, Lorcan Roache, Robert Day-O'Connor, Dan Clarke, Jonathan Joyce, Conor O'Regan, Ruairi Waldron-Caulfield, Liam Melia, Eric Flynn. Andrew Carr, Callum Heapes (Captain), Aodhfinn Broderick, Rory Parker, Dylan Tierney, Jordan Fogarty, Daniel Johnson, Ciaran Weldon, Antoinne Hubert, Ben Lavelle, Joe McNicholl, Sean Melia, Barry O'Shea, Eoghan Cullen, Tom Tuohy, Sean Kilmartin, Cian Kerrigan, Marcus Burke and Ewan Heapes.


For Blackrock in the east, read Garbally in the west. The Ballinasloe school, alma mater of former Ireland captains Ray McLoughlin and Ciaran Fitzgerald, has long been the most potent force in the schools game in Connacht. Even though it is a decade now since the last title at Junior (2006) they lead both 'S' and 'J' rolls of honour by the proverbial country mile.

The temporary demise from '07 could be traced to the closure of the boarding department and the subsequent re-adjustment that entailed. There is also the 'Kelly Factor'. The return of long-time teacher Gerry from his sabbatical as CEO with Connacht Rugby has reignited fire and desire.

His role in the rise of Connacht needs little elaboration, but the sleeping Garbally giant will again benefit from his expertise and enthusiasm.

The return to competitiveness has been instant, with narrow defeats to Marist (23-11) in 2013 and even closer still to Sligo Grammar (10-9) following a replay in 2014, but all culminating last year in title number 45 and the first since 2007 - also by the narrowest of margins when pipping Summerhill (19-18) in the Sportsground final. It completed a League and Cup double.

In the pre-Christmas Premier Senior League the Grammar reversed the positions from last year, taking the 2014/15 title by a single point. Both schools won seven of their eight games, but Sligo picked up one more bonus point than Garbally to seal the deal.

In the clash between the two there was just a single point in it (14-13 to Sligo). Expect the cup to be every bit as close again but with Marist also central to that competitive mix.

Connacht under-18 No 8 Michael O'Neill is joint captain along with Frank Hopkins in a very young squad that includes just four of last year's cup-winning line-up. There are ten back from that extended cup panel. Joseph Devine is son of former Connacht Senior player Mick, while it's certainly in the DNA with Billy McKenna - a grand nephew of the late, great Karl Mullen. Devine the elder is head coach along with Kevin Tierney of a young but still typically competitive Garbally squad. It is a tough pool with Marist and the highly impressive St Muredach's College likely to be the main opposition, based on pre-Christmas League form.


COACHES Kevin Tierney, Mick Devine, Noel Mannion and Gerry Kelly.

LAST YEAR Winners.

SQUAD Jeff Alova*, Rafeek Khan*, Cormac Coffey*, Raymond Ward, Conor Smith, Kevin Manning, Christopher Feeney, Shane Reynolds, Conor Harewood*, Gearoid Carrick, Iarla Muldoon, Stephen Grenham, Joseph Devine, Mohamed Abdullah, Michael O'Neill* (Joint Captain), Ciaran Tumulty, Gene Donohue, Frank Hopkins* (Joint Captain), Colm Reilly, Colm O'Brien, Eoin Galvin*, Brian Horkan*, Billy McKenna, Sean McGuinness, Colin Cotton, Ciaran Cogavin*, Brendan Doyle*, Michael Fogarty, Aaron McGreal, Nathan Williams, Nathan Cooley, Jack Kelly and Dylan Curley.


Central to the ongoing development of schools rugby, specifically into the far west of the province in places such as Belmullet, Crossmolina, Enniscrone etc, is one Russell O'Brien, who somehow combines the provincial coaching and development role with that of chief mentor to St Muredach's College in Ballina, another emerging force on the Connacht Schools scene.

According to Schools Chairman Chris Davies, "Out of the 218 matches played last season, 45% were due to Russ. He is coaching nine schools in NW Connacht and doing some amazing work."

The genial O'Brien is a Munster man by birth who played all his rugby with Clonmel RFC. Having moved to Mayo, married and settled in Ballina, he re-educated himself in sport and leisure, earning his coaching badges through Ballina RFC and Connacht Rugby.

"I started roughly six years ago with the rugby summer camps, gradually getting involved in the schools and through Domestic Rugby Manager Lyndon Jones. I'm now on year two of a three-year seasonal contract in the North West, where we have ten schools that are not and never have been traditional rugby-playing schools, from Erris to Easky, with around 250 underage players training and playing in Connacht-sanctioned competitions per week."

At St Muredach's, much like St Gerald's given its location in the heart of GAA country, Gaelic Football is the main team sport followed by soccer and rugby in that order. Already the Ballina school has lifted the North West Junior Development League followed by Senior Development League as well as Senior 7s Plate last year.

Unfortunately, much like CBS Roscommon and the Bish, Muredach's have lost some of their most talented players to other rugby-playing schools. Yet for all that, the maiden journey prior to Christmas in the Senior Schools 'A' League has proved enormously beneficial both in experience and results. Narrow defeats to Sligo by eight and Garbally by two (eventual winners and runners-up), followed by wins over St Gerald's, Summerhill and the Bish has boosted confidence for the upcoming cup enormously.

Darragh Whyte is full-back and captain of a still-developing squad that includes Connacht representative players in Brian Boland (under-17) and back-rower Daniel Molloy (under-18). Other promising backs on the radar include out-half Simon Leonard and inside-centre Jordan Flynn. The multi-talented Flynn has played for the county Minors in football as well as representing Mayo in soccer. Jack Irwin and Jack O'Hora have also lined out at Minor level for Mayo and Sligo respectively, while Bryan Moloney is a Mayo Minor All Ireland Div C winner. Hardy forward Craig Naughton is a European Junior Power-lifter. Included in the backroom staff is one Michael Moylett of Shannon, Munster and Ireland fame.

In a journey into previously un-chartered water, it's everything to gain and little to lose for Muredach's.

COACHES Russell O'Brien (head), Enda Jones, Martin Boland, Emmet Peyton, Mick Moylett and Jason Gilmartin.

LAST YEAR Did not compete.

SQUAD Craig Naughton*, Gavin Jones*, Brian Boland*, Oisin Loughney, Jack Irwin*, Daniel Molloy*, Fergus McDermott Quinn*, Jack O'Hora*, Padraig Hughes*, Chris Healy*, Jason Moyles*, Niall Keane*, Simon Leonard*, Bryan Moloney*, Jordan Flynn*, Luke Doherty*, Aran Mulany*, Darragh Whyte* (Captain), Michael Collins*, Jason Walsh*, James Toomey* and Matthew Cribben*.


They may trail Garbally (45), the Bish (12) and the Jes (12) in Senior Cups won but when it comes to consistency, as in regularly qualifying for League and Cup finals, Sligo Grammar is almost in a class of its own.

Senior Cup winners in 2014 and Senior League winners again in 2015 (reversing positions with Garbally from 12 months ago), all the signs point to another serious cup challenge for 2016.

Head coach James Gavin and former hooker Thomas Ferrari (2011 Captain and under-18 international) pick from a squad with 13 back from last year's extended cup panel that was squeezed out on points difference by Garbally from making it through to a unique all-Sligo final against near neighbours Summerhill.

To emphasise how close these schools are, Sligo drew with Garbally (6-6) and lost to Summerhill by a point (15-14). Just a single point separated Garbally and Summerhill (19-18) in the final that followed.

All signs point to another tight and very open competition, albeit with a bigger field of potential winners this time around. Rest assured Grammar will be central to that mix. Peter Oloyede is captain of the class of 2016, a workmanlike group that includes just two representative players in out-half Niall Gray and tight head Kuba Wojtkowicz.

Significantly, the only loss in that League-winning run prior to Christmas was against Summerhill (12-6) in the local derby. Both schools have been drawn together in Pool 2 along with Colaiste Iognaid (the Jes), CBS, Roscommon and St Gerald's. The smart money is on the Grammar to be there or thereabouts once again, and so is mine.


COACHES James Gavin, Thomas Ferrari, Tommy Cradock, Diane Potter and Jimmy Staunton.

LAST YEAR Third in League, just missing out to Garbally and Summerhill for a place in the final.

SQUAD Peter Oloyede* (Captain), Philip Carter, Pablo Del Valle*, Sam Donaghy*, Niall Gray*, Graham Kerr*, Calum McGrath*, Bryan Ndego, Oisin Nee, Christian Nielsen, Jude Perry*, Oisin Rouxel*, Oisin Staunton, Alex Walker, Cian Whiteside*, Kuba Wojtkowicz*, Digory Dixon, Graham Burke, Cian Doyle*, Robert Henry, Ronan Molloy*, Brendan Martin*, Peter West, Michael Kilcoyne and Alan Rocca.


The one consistent theme throughout almost every Connacht contender is the variety of sports on offer at most if not all schools, and Summerhill College is no exception.

Producing players competing consistently at the top level through Senior A rugby, Gaelic football, soccer and basketball is a remarkable achievement. Summerhill have been showing signs of becoming a real rugby force and nursery to both Sligo RFC and Connacht Rugby.

Only two seasons ago Conan O'Donnell was running out for Summerhill and has now played AIL rugby with Sligo, Irish Schools, Irish under-20s, Pro 12 and European Challenge Cup rugby with Connacht this year. From the same team two years ago, Stephen Kerins is part of the Connacht Academy and Irish under-20 squad.

And from last season's history-making team (reaching the school's first ever Senior final) Jack Keegan and Cillian Gallagher are now part of the Connacht Academy and have both played with Connacht Eagles (the provincial 'B' or shadow side). Gallagher is also in the Irish under-20 squad.

To lose last year's final by a single point (19-18) was heartbreaking, but with seven of that starting line-up returning this is an even more determined challenge 12 months on. Yusuf Shalabi and Mark Keegan return to the front row, with captain and blindside Shane O'Hehir packing down again alongside openside Liam McElhinney in the back row. Behind the scrum, centre Ross Hickey and both wings from last year, Shane Flanagan and Adrian Cummins, all return.

O'Hehir, McElhinney, Keegan, Hickey, Cummins and Shalabi have all represented Connacht at underage level this season. Ross Mannion and Adrian Barrett are again coaches to a squad that's a very real dark horse.

Underestimate the 2015 runners-up at your peril.

COACHES Ross Mannion and Adrian Barrett.

LAST YEAR Runners up. Finished top of the League ahead of Garbally before losing the final to the same opposition by a point (19-18).

SQUAD Shane O'Hehir* (Captain), Liam McElhinney*, Mark Keegan*, Ross Hickey*, Adrian Cummins*, Shane Flanagan*, Niall Crawley, Vincent Reynolds, Cian Hough*, Conor McGovern*, Sean Fowley, Fionn Costello, Gary Golden, Caoileann Carty, Yusuf Shalabi*, Sean Wynne, Thomas O'Hehir*, Brian Cox, Fiachra Doherty, Evan Tuffy, Cormac Murray, Hugh Kisby, Andreas Probst, Emmet Flanagan and Ronan Anderson.

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