Westport’s Junior Cup team carry the hopes of the host club at this year’s AIG Cups and Shields Finals.
A home win is the dream for every host club and at Westport, Junior Cup success has long been a major ambition. They have come tantalisingly close to landing this All Ireland crown, losing three finals since 2006.
Banbridge denied them in the ‘06 final at Enniscrone while Ballybunion prevailed at Royal Tara in 2013 before Greenisland broke Westport hearts in 2015 at Carton House. On that occasion, the green pennant slipped away on the 18th green after Greenisland’s John Armstrong completed an incredible comeback in the decisive match.
Traditionally, Westport compete strongly at this handicap level, perhaps testament to the quality of their highly-regarded course. Their sole All Ireland success came in 1980 but in the year that the AIG Cups and Shields Finals return to the Co Mayo club, victory this year would be sweeter still.
The core of Westport’s team has been together since 2006. Shane Larkin, Anto Browne and Fergus Rothwell are the most experienced members of the side while Ronan Hehir and Ronan Mahon played in the 2013 final.
Ulster champions, Malone, provide Westport’s opposition in Saturday’s semi-final. Malone showed their credentials by beating Warrenpoint in the Ulster decider. The Belfast club were champions in 2009 but were beaten in the semi-finals two years ago. From that 2017 team, Jamie Thompson remains while a raft of juniors have since come through. Fionn Dobbin, Ulster U14 Close champion, is an exciting prospect.
On the other side of the draw, Dun Laoghaire face Tramore. The Leinster champions are on a high after winning their first pennant since 1947. Dun Laoghaire count Brian Begley, a former professional soccer player, among their line-up. Teenagers Sam Varian and James Kelly are the youngest in a side that has survived a number of close calls.
“It’s been fine margins,” admits team captain Niall Keyes. “We have scraped our way through.”
Dun Laoghaire finished third in stroke play qualifying but only after a count back. There were close calls in the knockout stages too, against Millicent and Waterford.
Tramore, winners of the Senior Cup in 2014, are chasing a first success in the Junior Cup. The team is captained by former Waterford hurler, Paul Flynn, who played on the victorious Senior Cup side five years ago.
Another former Deise star, Dave Bennett, is a key member of this latest Tramore team. Bennett led the way for his club at the Munster Finals, landing the first point in the decider against East Cork.
“He (Bennett) was a very stylish hurler, a very good striker of a sliotar and he’s a very good striker of a golf ball,” attests team captain Flynn. “The Junior Cup section of Tramore is strong. It’s very competitive around this handicap group.”
Success for Tramore would cap an important year for the club as they celebrate their 125th anniversary.