We had two objectives going into this afternoon’s Connacht championship opener against London over in Ruislip. The first was to win the match by a decent margin and the second was to hope that we’d emerge from the fixture with no new injury concerns. From the sounds of it, we achieved both these aims so, in that sense, today’s first championship test for Stephen Rochford’s Mayo was one that was passed in a satisfactory manner.
It’s an odd fixture – surveying the throng of punters milling around below him today, Mike Finnerty remarked on Midwest that it more resembled the afters of a wedding than it did a Connacht championship game – but we knew from our last appearance in Ruislip back in 2011 that it was one we didn’t dare take lightly. This was reflected in the strong team we sent out for the fixture but the significant injury problems that are currently weighing us down saw U21 captain Stephen Coen make his first championship start, in place of Tom Parsons at midfield. This was our sole change from the team named in advance.
We had an early chance to take the lead but captain Cillian O’Connor uncharacteristically blasted wide from what should have been a routine free just outside the D. Worse was to follow soon after for the Ballintubber man as he picked up a black card, ending his involvement in the contest with little more than five minutes played. I wasn’t there so I’ve no idea if it was merited or not.
The silver lining to that particular black cloud was, however, the early introduction of Conor Loftus. The Crossmolina youngster has the mien of a player ready to take the step up to senior and his sparkling display this afternoon was one of the day’s real positives for us.
London had opened the scoring, from a free, shortly before Cillian’s premature departure and it fell to Robbie Hennelly, from a ’45, to get us moving on the scoreboard. It had been an edgy opening for us but from then on we eased away from them, notching 1-5 on the bounce to open up a clear lead.
The first three points of this barrage came from Evan Regan (one from play), following which Conor Loftus punched home the game’s opening goal. For good measure the Deel Rovers man added a point from play soon after.
London then got their second point of the day but another Evan Regan free canceled this out. Then Jason Doherty broke through for our second goal of the day and with that score the result was effectively in the bag.
We led by nine points at the break, 2-8 to 0-5, and this was, our double-digit wide count notwithstanding, pretty much where we wanted to be at that juncture. It was obvious by then that the contest was never going to descend into the nerve-ridden dogfight that we’d allowed ourselves to become mired in back in 2011. All we needed to do now was see out the win in an unfussy manner.
And that was more or less what we did. We huffed and puffed our way through the third quarter – the number of wides increasing all the while – but then hit five points on the spin to remove the last vestiges of doubt as to where this match was headed.
Stephen Rochford opted to run the bench early. A double substitution saw Shane Nally pitched into senior championship action for the first time while, at the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience, Andy Moran came on to make a record-breaking 133rd appearance for his county. Top man, Andy:
— Ballaghaderreen GAA (@Ballagh_GAA) May 29, 2016
As the match ambled on towards its inevitable conclusion – incidentally, it was really weird listening on the radio as the hubbub from the ground never varied one iota regardless of what was happening out on the field – more replacements made their appearance. Cathal Carolan, Alan Dillon and David Drake all saw game time and it was the Ballintubber veteran who notched our final point today, as the lads closed out a comfortable 13-point win.
— Emma (@EmmaMc7) May 29, 2016
As I was only following the action on the radio, I’m not really in any position to say too much about who did well today but from what I can gather most of the plaudits are being directed towards Evan Regan and Conor Loftus. Both of these lads may be short on championship experience but they more than make up for this in terms of the bite they add to our attack and Conor’s 1-2 off the bench will make him very hard to overlook against Galway in three weeks time.
With the London fixture now safely behind us it’s this Connacht semi-final clash against the Tribesmen at MacHale Park on 18th June that becomes our sole focus of attention. Today’s performance obviously leaves plenty to be worked on and I’m sure much will be done in that area in the training camp that the lads will be on over in London for the next week.
The questions Galway will ask us next month are, for sure, likely to be far more searching than those posed by London today. But with this opening hurdle safely negotiated, we’ll be heading into the provincial semis with plenty of questions of our own to ask the neighbours. We’re up and running, once again we’re on our way.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly (0-1, ’45); Brendan Harrison, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan; Stephen Coen (0-1), Jason Gibbons; Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Jason Doherty (1-0); Evan Regan (0-7, five frees), Cillian O’Connor, Conor O’Shea. Subs: Conor Loftus (1-2) for O’Connor (black card), Shane Nally for Boyle, Andy Moran (0-2) for Conor O’Shea, Cathal Carolan for Doherty, Alan Dillon (0-1) for Gibbons, David Drake for Keegan.