UCC stand in the way of another Sigerson Cup triumph for St Mary's

Ryan McCusker fields a high ball in St Mary's round three win over IT Tralee Picture by Mal McCann
Conor McKenna

Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup final: St Mary’s University College, Belfast v University College, Cork (Wednesday, Portlaoise, 7.30pm, live on TG4 YouTube)

ST Mary’s find themselves in the familiar position of underdog this evening when they take on UCC in the final of the Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup at O’Moore Park.

The men from the Falls Road college are seeking a second against-the-odds Sigerson title in the space of three seasons, having beaten UCD in the final of 2017, when under the management of Paddy Tally

On paper at least, this looks a mis-match. The Cork college, with almost 20,000 students, are going for a treble of titles – their hurlers face Mary Immaculate College, Limerick in Saturday’s Fitzgibbon Cup final, while their soccer side  claimed Collingwood Cup honours earlier this month.

In their footballing ranks, they have a raft of players already well established at county level, notably the Kerry trio of Sean O’Shea, Padraig Clifford and Brian Begley.

St Mary’s are not short of county players themselves, but the college houses just under 1000 students, none of whom are on a sports scholarship.

However, as other college footballing powerhouses have found to their cost, both this season and in 2017, the character and will-to-win of St Mary’s is something which counts for so much in high-pressure games.

They started this campaign as rank outsiders, as they did in 2017, but have gathered momentum with each victory.

NUI Galway – who availed of the competition’s new back-door format to go on and reach the semi-finals, where they lost to UCC last Sunday – were beaten in a free-taking shoot-out after a 1-11 each draw in round one in Dangan.

IT Tralee then came to Belfast last month in round three and were duly dispatched 1-15 to 1-10 as the Ranch booked a quarter-final spot.

That victory was thanks in no small part to the accuracy from frees of Shane McGuigan. Nine of the Slaughtneil and Derry forward’s 10 points came from frees that day and he backed it up with a further five (three frees) in the two-point (0-15 to 0-13) quarter-final win over Maynooth.

Working in tandem with McGuigan in the scoring stakes has been Stephen McConville, who, having chipped in with 0-3 from frees against NUI Galway, added three valuable points from play against Maynooth, before really stealing the show in Saturday’s semi-final win over UCD.

The Down man scored six (four frees) of his side’s 10 points at windy Mallow as the Belfast men laid the foundations for victory by holding the defending champions scoreless until early in the second half.

By the time Barry Dan O’Sullivan scored UCD’s first point, the Ranch had already established a seven-point lead and they were able to fend off the Dublin side to emerge 0-10 to 0-7 winners.

Other players who have played a huge part in the St Mary’s success story have been Tyrone’s Liam Rafferty, Armagh’s Jarlath Og Burns and Derry’s Niall Toner.

The latter accounted for the Belfast side’s only goal from open play, in the win over Tralee, while Rafferty has scored 0-5 breaking forward from defence, 0-3 of which came in the opening win over NUI Galway.

Burns, meanwhile, has impressed at midfield and scored a point in every game.

In contrast to St Mary’s, who have scored just two goals in their four games and relied on the accuracy of McGuigan and McConville from frees, UCC have been devastating in putting opponents to the sword.

They have racked up an incredible 15-56 in just three games, with 7-26 coming in the opening win over Athlone, then a further 4-9 in Sunday’s semi-final against NUI Galway.

St Mary’s manager Gavin McGilly, will though, take heart from the fact that the western college themselves managed to post 1-15 in return, a figure that would win many games.

“I think UCC are everybody’s favourites,’’ admits McGilly.

“They won the league prior to Christmas. Sean O’Shea is the top scorer in the National  League at the minute and he’s not their only threat – you have Conor Geaney, Padraig Clifford and Brian Begley too.

‘‘UCC are a proud Sigerson college as well so we know they’ll be a massive test for us, but it’s one that we’re looking forward to. We’ll just go for it.” 

The Annaghmore native spoke of the pride that his players have in representing their college and of the great togetherness within the group.

“They play for the pride and honour of representing the college. Students who come to St Mary’s are here to learn to become teachers, that’s the profession they want to pursue in life.

“We’ve a great team unity, team ethos and togetherness.’’

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