Season set for nights of intriguing derbies
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE:THE ULSTER Bank League resumes for its 23rd campaign this evening and is still not without its flaws. Fortunate that last season’s title run-in came down to a dramatic last day which saw St Mary’s pip Clontarf, uppermost amongst these is the ongoing lack of end-of-season play-offs to ensure a fitting climax for the club game.
There is also the IRFU’s excessive restrictions on provincial players. This has, inadvertently, led to one of this season’s more positive developments. Never has the league had a more lob-sided geographical look, especially Division One A, with a six/four, Munster/Leinster split. But, with Munster also neatly divided into four clubs from Limerick and two from Cork this allows for the advent of 24 Friday night derbies. Indeed, on the Friday night before Ireland host South Africa at the Aviva Stadium on November 10th, there is a full programme of five Division One A floodlit derbies.
With Belfast Harlequins and Dungannon having let UL Bohemians slip past them on the last day as champions of Division One B, as two of five Ulster sides in that second tier, they are also involved in derbies that night, along with relegated Blackrock and UCD. Why, Galwegians’ relegation from Division One B means they too will host Corinthians that night in what will be the first Galway AIL derby for over a decade.
This evening the fun and games begin with Shannon, Garryowen and Old Belvedere hosting Young Munster, Dolphin and Lansdowne. Young Munster travel to Thomond Park for a game which will be televised on Irish Rugby TV having been Munster’s leading side last season under the impressive Mike Prendergast, who will now be assisted by Denis Leamy.
They have lost goalkicker Willie Staunton to Terenure and backrowers Liam Óg Murphy, Rory Moloney and others to emigration, but have recruited well, with outhalf Gareth Quinn McDonagh arriving from Shannon via Doncaster, along with Declan Lavery.
Shannon have also been busy with centre Eric Moloney signing from Dolphin as they look for unity under the reappointed Stephen Keogh.
Garryowen, under the new regime of former players Tom Tierney and Paul Neville, will be interesting. They will miss Neville and Frank McKenna, who has also retired, but have strengthened with the return of Barry O’Mahony, the Connacht duo of TJ Anderson and Matt Jarvis, and Con full-back Seán Scanlon.
Newly-promoted UL Bohemians will also be a very strong side whenever they can line out all their academy, sub-contracted and fully contracted players.
Cork Con, with the prolific Gerry Hurley captain, are due a stronger challenge under Brian Walsh and boast a couple of exotic signings in French outside backs Segere Renaud and Paul Perez as well as Jayde Cruickshank and Graeme Lawson from Zimbabwe.
St Mary’s will not suffer unduly if Hugh Hogan shows the same intelligence he displayed as a number eight in his new role as coach but only Shannon have ever retained the AIL. Lansdowne will again be competitive while Clontarf have moved to solve their outhalf conundrum with the acquisition of Declan Fitzpatrick from Blackrock. Under Andy Wood and Simon Broughton, Clontarf ought again be in contention.