All Ireland League rugby returns this weekend with ten fixtures taking place in Div 1A and 1B: The league enters it twenty third season after it was set up in 1990/91. Proposed changes to the league will see the introduction of five ten teams leagues in 2015/16 with the number of clubs being reduced from 52 to 50. How the balance of power in Irish rugby has shifted on the island of Ireland from the rugby heartlands of Limerick and Cork to Dublin and Leinster with the province providing the last four winners of the AIL. Limerick has only one club in Young Munster competing in Div 1A with the Shannon, UL Bohemians and Garryowen all relegated to Div 1B in recent seasons. Once again Leinster clubs are expected to dominate Div 1A with the playoff final returning to the Aviva stadium. Ulster are represented by Ballynahinch in Div 1A with the County Down side surviving an end of season playoff to retain their Div 1A status. Head coach Derek Suffern will want to add further silverware to the trophy cabinet at Ballymacarn as his squad will mount a serious challenge for AIL honours in the clubs sixty anniversary season. The loss of key players including former captain Stuart Morrow, back row Neil Faloon along with props Michael Cromie and Chris Taylor will provide opportunities for new captain Harry McAleese and his players to compete for places in the 1st xv squad such is the strength in depth of the player pool at the club. Additions including Charlie Butterworth, Richard Reaney, Chris Quinn, Stephen McCauley, Kenny Morton, Stewart McCloskey, Rhurdai Murphy and Declan Fitzpatrick along with fit again Academy players James Simpson and John Donnan will only add to the competition for starting places. Club players Paul Pritchard, David McGuigan, Michael Graham and Jonny Madden along with front rowers Johnny Murphy and Kyle McCall with provide the core of the side. Attacking options will be provided by backs including Aaron Cairns, Harry McAleese, Jordan Gratton, Ross Adair, Robin Harte and Aaron Ferris with their considerable AIL experience. Hinch face an opening day trip to Lakelands Park to play Dublin side Terenure College who have achieved successive promotions in consecutive seasons from Div 2A. They remain undefeated after 22 matches in AIL rugby since February 2013 when they last lost to Galway Corinthians. Ex Leinster hooker James Blayney has been the mastermind behind their success. Can the men in ‘Green’ get their AIL campaign off to a winning start.
Fixtures Div 1A. Sat 13.9.14 kick off 2.30pm
UCD V St Marys College Played Friday 12.9.14 with a 7.30PM kick off.
Clontarf v Young Munster
Landsdowne v Dolphin
Old Belvedere v Cork Constitution
Terenure v Ballynahinch
In Div 1B Ulster are represented by Belfast Harlequins, Malone and newly promoted Ballymena who replace relegated Dungannon: Promoted Galwegians and Ballymena are expected to be contesting the promotion places such is the depth in strength of the two playing squads. Belfast Harlequins have relied on their strong Ulster representation in recent seasons that has seen alot of player movement in and out of Deramore Park. Coach Adam Larkin will welcome the release of Ulster players Sean Reidy, Neil McComb and Rory Scholes for their opening match in Limerick at Thomond Park against UL Bohemians. Experienced Captain Neil Simpson will lead a strong front five that will be pivotal in the clubs ambitions this season. Their player of the season Oliver Loughead will lead a dynamic backrow supported by Ireland under 20 star Frankie Taggart and Sean Reidy. Recent addition Matthew Rainey is expected to start at scrum half after impressing in pre season. He will be supported by Mark Best and ex Midleton 10/12 Eamon Lane. There is pace in abundance in the threequarters with Mark Glover fresh from two tries against Queens along with Euan Strang and Mark Keyttle to provide that attacking threat. Malone relied on two end of season wins against Shannon and Galway Corinthians to retain their Div 1B status. Again there has been a noticeable addition of players to Jacque Benades playing squad. The return of Josh Pentland and Corey Tipping will add that much needed experience to their young squad. Their opening match at Gibson Park with Buccaneers will surely tell us whether the Cregagh Road side have the players to compete for league honours this season. Ulster players Alan O’Connor, Conor Joyce and Bronson Boss turned out for Malone last weekend against Dungannon. Recent additions including Hugo Harbinson, Mark Marwood, Josh Bingham, John Burns and Andrew Black have impressed in pre season. Injury continues to rule out the availability of Ulster players Peter Nelson and Paul Jackson. Ballymena have considerably added to their playing squad in the off season. They welcome Galway Corinthians to Eaton Park for their opening Div 1B match after being relegated from the same league in 2013. The resilence shown by the players and coaches has led to this remarkable turn around in their fortunes. Will we see the Braid team back in the top tier next season. Key additions including Ritchie McMaster, Stephen Mulholland, Sean Taylor, James Beattie and Michael Lagan will bolster their squad. Ulster scrum half Dave Shanahan provides that energy and go forward momentum for this strong running team.
Fixtures Div 1B. Sat 13.9.14. kick off 2.30pm
Garryowen V Shannon
Ballymena v Galway Corinthians
Galwegiand v Dublin Uni
Malone v Buccaneers
UL Bohemians v Belfast Harlequins.
In the Ulster Senior League there are two fixtures with teams competing in Div 2A and 2B completing preparations for their AIL programme due to commence on the 20th Sept: Banbridge welcome Dungannon to Rifle Park. There was a reminder for Daniel Soper and his players last weekend that they cannot be complacent as they were beaten at home by a strong City of Derry side 23 – 18. The Bann side will want a win before they commence their AIL campaign. Captain Jonny Graham has to show leadership in leading this talented squad of players. Dungannon may have slipped under the radar, but they have shown in their performances against Rainey and Malone they will provide stiff opposition for any side. Again Captain James Bates and number 8 James McMahon are inspirational players. City of Derry will welcome under pressure Ards to Judges Road. Ards coach Stewart Porter will look for a much improved performance before his team travel to Sligo for their opening AIL game. After heavy defeats to Banbridge and Ballymena the players know they have to improve their performances. City of Derry may have suffered a player exodus but with a greatly reduced AIL squad they will prove difficult to defeat such is the resilience of this North West squad. It is important for Ulster rugby that Belfast does not become the focus of Senior club rugby to the detriment of the clubs in the West of Ulster.
The opening round of this seasons Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup will see holders Ballynahinch seconds travel to play Dungannon seconds at Stevenson Park in the only fixture on Sat.
In Qualifying rugby the Q1 sides have a weekend off after the opening exchange of fixtures that have potentially set out the sides who will be contesting promotion and relegation: With two AIL sides being relegated at the end of the season will we see a repeat of two sides being relegated from each Qualifying league this season. Once again the action will be fast and furious.
In Q2 the league got under way last Sat with Lisburn recording a 24 – 19 win over newly promoted Holywood: The focus will again be on Q2 this weekend with three fascinating contests down for decision. There is an County Antrim derby with Academy welcoming Randalstown to Roughfort Park. Both sides finished last season strongly with a top six placing once again within their sights. Academy have Head coach Gareth Lynn incharge and he will be looking to Captain Lee Moody to provide the leadership on the pitch. With Ulster Junior props James Blair and Chris Nash in their front row expect Academy to be very competitive this season. Randalstown have Gary Longwell and Alistair Strange in charge as they continue to establish themselves in Q2. Playing additions including Scott Stevenson and Daniel Morgan along with the return of injured players Neil Foster and Chris Allen will only strengthen their squad. With a new coaching team of Norman Richmond, Ashley Finlay and Jamie Johnston in place at Mullaghmeen there is an air of anticipation the ‘Skins’ could be a surprise package in this league. After a strong pre season they have welcomed returning Beatty brothers Gareth and Richard to the front row alongside Ryan Cathcart. With Ulster Juniors Jamie Johnston, Alan Wilkinson and Ashley Finlay to call on they have the additional playing experience to move forward this developing playing squad. The return of the experienced Nick Finlay at out half will be a big bonus for the squad. Expect a noisey welcome from the ‘Shed’ for Mark Crothers and his Lisburn side. Injuries and indiscipline could have proved costly in their narrow win over a depleted Holywood side. Lisburn will pose a threat for the skins team with the presence of their influential and physical Fijian centre. In the final Q2 fixture Holywood will welcome promotion favourites Omagh to Kerr Park. Coach Laurence Kelly is working a miracle with a small playing squad at Holywood following the departure of several players to England. He will be looking to players including Luke McDowell, Kyle McFarland, Jordan De Pledge, Captain Rory Eves, and forwards Phil Harris and Andrew Davidson to keep his side in Q2. Omagh coach Phil Marshall has a full playing squad at his disposal. Such is the strength in depth at the club witnessed by the performances of their seconds and thirds in Junior rugby is there another team in Q 2 who can stop their march into Q1. He has key players in prop and Captain Mark Smyth along with the very talented backs of Ali Beckett, Ryan Mitchell and Lee Murphy to call upon. Why has the development work led by Phil Marshall and his coaching team in recent years at Omagh not been recognised at under age representative level in Ulster rugby. We will watch this space with interest.
Fixtures Q 2. Sat 13.9.14. kick off 2.30pm
Academy v Randalstown
Enniskillen v Lisburn
Holywood v Omagh
In Q 4
Letterkenny v Virginia
Monaghan v Civil Service
Armagh v Dundalk
Larne v Carrickfergus
Lurgan v Cavan
Portadown v TBC
All these fixtures kick off at 2.30pm on Sat 13.9.14.
By George Millar.