Tony Ward's school-by-school guide to Connacht
COLAISTE IOGNAID, GALWAY (THE JES)
WITH six finals in seven years between 2005 and 2011, winning all but one (beaten by Sligo Grammar in 2010), Jes rugby recently went through a golden era, topping their four out of five between 1924 and 1928.
Unfortunately, when you set the bar that high, it can undoubtedly be difficult level of consistency to maintain.
Not for a minute am I suggesting they are set for 'famine times,' but it has certainly been a couple of tame years for the school ranked second alongside great rivals St Joseph's College, Galway (The Bish) on 12 titles apiece, but well behind sleeping giants Garbally, who are way out in front on 42.
Beaten 11-8 by Garbally in last year's semi-final, Paul Kilraine can call again on 17 players from that extended squad.
Eoghan Hannon is captain to a group short on representative players, with Philip Murphy the only player to make the step-up – and that's with the Sweden U-18s.
Beyond that, William Finnerty and Paul Butler are sons of former Mayo footballers.
Apart from a big loss to Garbally, wins over Gallen, Rice and most particularly Marist, in addition to a 7-6 defeat to Sligo in the Premier League, suggest a Jes squad well capable of mixing it with the best.
The draw hasn't been kind, however, with the opposition in a tricky Pool A being Garbally, Summerhill and Rice.
The opening game is in Ballinasloe on February 16 and the outcome could make or break their campaign, although qualifying ahead of Summerhill and Rice would see the objective of a place in the last four achieved.
COACHES: Paul Kilraine, Colin Conroy, Jake Heenan, John King.
LAST YEAR: Beaten by Garbally (11-8) in semi-final.
SQUAD: Paul Butler, Morgan Codyre, *Eoghan Croker, *Carl Delaney, William Finnerty, *Eoghan Feehan, *Ryan Flaherty, *Donnchadha Forde, Conor Greaney, *Eoghan Hannon (Captain), *Cormac Heskin, Ryan Hunt, *Michael Jones, *Richard Kelly, *Robbie Kenny, Mel Kilroy, Dylan McGlynn, Ruairi McHugh, Sean McKeogh, *Liam McKnight, *Ciaran Murphy, *Philip Murphy, Donncha O Conchuir, *John O'Connor, Conn O'Flynn, Fiachra O Griofa, Dara O'Toole, *Harry Power, Cormac Rowe, *Cian Shaughnessy, Mark Trainor, *Zane Wilkinson.
MARIST COLLEGE, ATHLONE
How do you top the best couple of years in the school's history? That is the challenge facing Mick Loftus, David Fagan, Cian O'Brien and those remaining from the all-conquering squad of 2013.
Thirteen from that double-winning unit return to launch an assault on a first ever three-in-a-row.
Along with out-half Charlie McMickan, Conor McGrath captains the side. Having played in 2012 as an U-17, McGrath is in the extraordinary position of chasing a third senior cup medal. What an achievement that would be. The remainder is made up from the league and cup-winning junior squad of last year, who made Marist double double winners.
Lorcan Seery is a brother of Conor, SCT winner in 2012, while Ross Flanagan is a brother of Scott, another medal winner on that team (now with St Mary's in the AIL and Ireland U-20s).
Ross Cooper is a brother of Kevin and Brian, try scorers in that 2012 final. Luke Carty is a brother of emerging Connacht star Jack and Ben, yet another from the class of 2012.
Luke captained last year's double- winning 'J' outfit.
Joint-captains McMickan and McGrath are also the school's representative players for 2013/14.
Defeats to Sligo Grammar and the Jes cost the 2012 and 2013 winners their league title, but this is is a young squad making steady progress.
Exciting times at the school that gave us Robbie Henshaw, and I suspect they are far from finished just yet.
COACHES: Mick Loftus, David Fagan, Cian O'Brien.
LAST YEAR: Winners.
SQUAD: *Cilliene Walshe, Brian Collins, Patrick Browne, Jamie O'Keefe, Michael McLoughlin, Cathal Maleady, *Lorcan Seery, *Cian Irwin, *Patrick Dooner, *Ross Flanagan, Tristram Ryan, Conor Duignan, Austin Murphy, Jack McGann, *Bobby Pears, Stephan Sheehan, *Odhran Daly, *Thomas Finucane, Ross Cooper, Killian O'Donnell, *Ben Kennedy, Neale Conway, *Charlie McMickan, Paul Daly, *Oisin Rowe, *Conor McGrath, *Conall O'Brien, Eoin Elliott, Luke Carty.
RICE COLLEGE, WESTPORT
Three Junior Cup final appearances in a row between 2010 and 2012, including back-to-back wins in 2011 and 2012, would suggest Rice are a squad well equipped to land a maiden senior trophy.
Alas, between players dropping out, some switching schools, and injury, it has been a frustrating time for coach Joe O'Grady, a former Mayo footballer and Westport RFC stalwart.
Having lost all of their league games, and with Sean Tobin, their junior cup-winning captain in 2010 and Connacht U-19 representative, ruled out with a serious hand injury until February at least, the omens are not exactly the best for this small panel. That said, there are 14 Junior Cup winners fit and available, as well as nine back (including Tobin) from last year's squad beaten by Jes and Marist in Pool 1.
Connacht representative Michael O'Grady (son of coach Joe) captains a squad which includes Cillian Browne (cousin of Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly), Conor Burke (Mayo minor panellist and double JCT medal winner), Edward Dunning (Connacht U-19), Robert Fabby (double medal winner), Niall Feehan (double medal winner and Mayo minor football panellist), Brian McCormack (son of former Westport Club President Pat) and Tom McHale (Connacht U-18 and Junior Cup winning captain 2011).
The draw hasn't been overly generous either – they are up against a promising Summerhill squad and traditional heavyweights Colaiste Iognaid and Garbally in Pool A.
COACHES: Joe O'Grady, Tom Tobin, Joe Corcoran.
LAST YEAR: Finished third behind Marist and Jes in Pool 1.
SQUAD: Cillian Browne, Darragh Browne, *Conor Burke, *Jack Cashman, *Steven Cawley, Conor Conway, Sean Coughlan, Richard Duffy, *Edward Dunning, Robert Fabby, *Niall Feehan, Ciaran Harrington, Brian McCormack, Diarmaid McGreal, *Tom McHale, Brendan McLoughlin, Tadgh McNally, Keith Moon, Paul Moran, *Michael O'Grady (captain), *Fearghal O'Mahoney, Phillip O'Malley, Ross Prendergast, Sean Ryder, Sean Southgate, Stephen Staunton, *Sean Tobin.
Gaelic Football and soccer, basketball too, have long been Summerhill's most prominent sports.
However, rugby has grown at the school and Summerhill have rattled more than a few cages since the turn of the millennium.
Junior Cup finalists in 2005 and 2009, losing to Marist and Calasanctius (Oranmore) respectively, plus a Senior Development Cup final appearance in 2010 (losing to the Bish)... confidence is growing in a developing force fighting to establish itself.
Ross Mannion and Rory Kerins oversee a talented squad backboned by five to have already worn the Connacht green.
Skipper and versatile front-row forward Conan O'Donnell is the jewel in the crown. The Connacht Schools tighthead has also been selected on the Irish Schoolboys squad and is being widely touted as one to watch.
Scrum-half Stephen Kerins too has represented the province this season and was very unlucky not to have been picked on the Irish clubs squad.
Jack Keegan and Darragh Cummins have also represented Connacht, with the latter also playing inter-county minor football at the age of 16. Shane O'Hehir is a Connacht U-17 representative and another fine player in the making.
Sharing limited resources in a multi sport school is a difficult balancing act.
The Jes and Garbally are strongly fancied to emerge from Pool A, but with this Summerhill squad, don't rule out the unlikely.
COACHES: Ross Mannion, Rory Kerins, Adrian Barrett (manager).
Last Year: Did not qualify.
SQUAD: Conan O'Donnell (captain), Stephen Kerins, Jack Keegan, Darragh Cummins, Liam McElhinney, Ronan Redmond, Shane O'Hehir, Luke Morrison, Thomas Mullaney, Cian Hough, Alexander Selby, Andrei Rastegajev, Darren Harte, Andrew Kerr, Diarmuid Loftus, Conor Greene, Ross Chrystal, Cilian Gallagher, Neil Murray, Jackson Smith, Diarmuid Hough, Gareth Davey, Ciaran Cassidy, Luke Walsh.
SLIGO GRAMMAR SCHOOL
Eight finals, embracing wins in 2000, 2003 and 2010, since the turn of the millennium and 'the Grammar' are yet again right in the mix this year.
The Sligo school with nine titles to date and fourth on the overall list, have been the most consistent force in Connacht Schools rugby in recent times. Whether Junior or Senior League, Junior or Senior Cup, they are always there or thereabouts.
Yet again this year the beaten league finalists – they lost 11-6 to Garbally – pick from a squad rich in depth. Wily old 'Creggs' fox James Gavin, along with Simon Galvan and Chris Nairn, oversee a group with 14 back from last year's panel, beaten 23-11 by Marist in the final.
It includes five Connacht Schools U-18 players in back-rows Joe Conway and Matthew Cosgrove, front-row Joe Bennet, wing Ryan Feehily and Daire Byrne. Conway captains the side and is also a member of the Irish Clubs U-18 squad.
Having gone through the Premier League unbeaten until losing to Garbally in the final, hopes are high of a place in the last four at least. Whoever gets the better of 'the Grammar' will be fancied to go the whole way.
COACHES: Simon Galvan, James Gavin, Tommy Cradock, Diane Potter (physio), Chris Nairn.
LAST YEAR: Beaten by Marist (28-19) in semi-final.
SQUAD: *Joe Conway (captain), *Nicholas Barthel, *John Bartely, *Joe Bennett, *Peter Brittain, Daire Byrne, *Mervyn Carter, *Colin Davis, Cian Doyle, Ryan Feehily, TJ Ford, *Jason Greer, Jonathan Higgins, *Cathal Joyce, Paul Kilcoyne, *Daniel Layden, Austin McGuinn, Andrew Moffitt, Brian Moore, *John Oloyede, Peter Oloyede, Ben Rooney, Jake Sexton, Dairog Smith, *Luke Stanley, *Grant Tierney, *Neville Walker.
ST JOSEPH'S COLLEGE, GALWAY (THE BISH)
When you are voted Basketball Ireland School of the Year; when you win the Connacht Football Championship, retain the Connacht hurling 'B' title, are soccer's All-Ireland first-year champions and compete in the Australian Schools rowing championship – all inside the space of two years – it's fair to say you've got a fairly full sporting agenda.
Add further success in athletics and table-tennis, and it's little wonder that rugby has to fight tooth and nail for its slot.
It may be 1999 since the Bish last made it through to the final (losing to Sligo Grammar) and 1994 when the coveted trophy last made its way to Nun's Island, but every so often, the school that gave Eric Elwood to the rugby world and that boasts 12 outright wins produces a squad capable of mixing it with the best.
Whether 2014 is such a year only time will tell, but Ambrose Conboy oversees a committed group led by inspirational skipper Niall Mulloy and which includes highly promising representative players in Connacht U-18 hooker Cian Hornibrook, as well as flanker Malcolm Hanley (whose father was a Schools Cup medal winner with the Bish).
Other multi-talented sportsmen include Ross Elwood (cousin of Eric), Kieran Joyce (whose older brother Matthew played with the Connacht Junior team and won an All-Ireland U-17 club championship with Galwegians), Phelim McGovern (member of the Irish windsurfing team) and James Mitchell (provincial and national sprint league titles at senior and underage for the 100m and 200m)
While the class of 2014 lies second in the development league, it is unlikely they will threaten big guns Marist or Sligo Grammar in a difficult Pool B, making the clash with Clifden their 'must win' game.
COACHES: Ambrose Conboy (head), Derek Murray, Stephen Mason, Conor Burke, Stephen Kelly.
LAST YEAR: Finished third behind Sligo Grammar and Garbally in Pool 2 thereby failing to make the semi-final.
SQUAD: Evan Doyle, Cian Hornibrook, Evan Brady, Aaron Mulry, Ferghal Dooley, Colin Finnerty, Ronan Kelly, Ross Elwood, Karl Burke, James Brogan, Kieran Joyce, Malcolm Hanley, Peadar O'Beirne, Niall Mulloy (captain), Mark Kenny, Rory Miller, Oisin Carey, James Maxwell, Jack Maloney, Leo Courtney, Stephen Carroll, Mark McDonagh, Phelim McGovern, Rory Burke, Peter Beegan, Shane Casserly, Peter Crotty, Dylan Doyle, Lairgnan McDermott, Geoffrey Casserly and James Mitchell.
ST JOSEPH'S COLLEGE, GARBALLY
Six years in a deep sleep, the giants of Connacht rugby are back and on the prowl. Last year's final appearance – despite losing to Marist – was no once-off.
The closing of the boarding department back around the time of the last Senior Cup win (2007) has made for a period of great re-adjustment in the school that has long set the standard for Connacht rugby.
Already, despite a slow start, when losing two Premier League games, the pre-Christmas title is in the Ballinasloe locker.
A final that could have gone either way against Sligo Grammar (11-6) suggests that these are the two sides any school with cup-winning aspirations will have to beat.
Factor in that one of those league defeats was a comprehensive mauling by Sligo – the other a close loss to reigning champions Marist –and a rip-roaring knockout competition is all but guaranteed.
Can Garbally complete the coveted senior double?
Of course they can, but if they are to emerge on top in the coming weeks they are going to have to do it the hard way. And that is as it should be if title number 45 is to be added to the hugely impressive honours list.
Michael Horan, assisted by Geoff Kenny (Connacht U-19s coach) and Ronan Flanagan (manager) will unleash a group that includes no fewer than 15 members of last year's extended cup final squad.
Two front-row positions and one back-row are the only specific areas in need of address from last year's finishing line up.
Scrum-half Sean Horan captains a talented and highly experienced group, nine of whom have already worn the provincial green at differing grades and levels.
These include Niall Higgens (Schools, Youths), Conor Kenny (Schools, Youths), Sam Holland (Schools, Youths), Peter Claffey (Schools, Youths), Dylan Connolly (Schools, Youths), Jack Codyre (Connacht U-19s), Simon Keller (Schools, Youths), Peter Flannery (Schools, Youths), as well as the skipper who has also achieved dual Schools and Youth honours.
They may not like it, but even with the presence of the Jes in Pool A, they will be red-hot favourites to top the group and qualify for a home semi-final, thereby putting a Sportsground Senior Cup final at the top of the Garbally agenda.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
COACHES: Michael Horan (head), Geoff Kenny, Ronan Flanagan (manager).
LAST YEAR: Beaten by Marist (23-11) in final.
SQUAD: *Darren O'Hara, Niall Higgins, *Anthony Curley, Conor Noone, Conor Kenny, Kevin Flynn, *Sam Holland, *Peter Claffey, Andrew Foulger, Oisin Lyons, *Conor Barrett, *Dylan Connolly, *Ryan Glennon, *Jack Codyre, Donnachadh Reilly, Frankie Hopkins, *Simon Keller, *Ian Duffy, *Sean Horan (Captain), Shane Kelly, Eoin McCormack, *Peter Flannery, *Cian Dooley, *Stephen Tierney, Sam Parker, Aaron Kennedy, *Robbie Kelly, Liam Murray, James Kilmartin, Dylan Ryan, Noel Cotton.