Optimism abounds across the 50 senior clubs in Irish rugby as they return to competitive action this Saturday with the first of 18 rounds of 25 matches across five divisions.
They do so on the back of a fine 2021-22 season, withstanding the effects of Covid with a largely untroubled campaign (only seven matches out of 450 were called off).
Furthermore, with the British & Irish Cup no more, Division 1A in particular revelled in the increased presence of provincial players with what was, by popular consent, the best season in yonks.
None of which would have seemed possible in the darkest days of the pandemic. But the clubs reported a 15% increase in attendance last season and the cracking AIL Men’s Division 1A final at the Aviva Stadium between Clontarf and Terenure more than doubled the previous record at the venue with a 6,000-plus attendance.
Once again the Leinster clubs look better primed after their more competitive provincial league, Terenure pipping Lansdowne in last week’s final and, along with Clontarf, this trio again look likely to fill three of the play-off places.
Clontarf were the worthiest of champions last season, having won all but one of their 18 regular season matches before beating Cork Constitution in the semi-finals and then Terenure.
Leinster A centre Hugh Cooney has joined from Blackrock College, and they have secured the goalkicking 10/12 Steve Crosby from Old Belvedere, as well as the Old Wesley pair of lock JJ O’Dea and Irish Under-20s and Leinster A scrumhalf Ben Murphy, son of Richie, which will help ease Angus Lloyd’s increased medical commitments.
‘Tarf kick off their campaign away to UCD in Belfield, when they could be vulnerable given the students had another raft of players in the summer’s Irish Under-20s to follow the hugely promising James Culhane, currently with Emerging Ireland, and others. Coached by Mark McDermott, they’ll have a big pack and could be dark horses.
Having had a taste of their first ever final, and suffered disappointment, Terenure are liable to come back more determined than ever.
The St Michael’s pair of Irish Under-19s fullback Henry McErlean and Leinster Under-19s scrumhalf Fintan Gunne have joined, while they’ve kept the vast bulk of the squad brilliantly led by Harrison Brewer last season.
They begin away to all-time AIL kingpins and newly-promoted Shannon, back in the top flight for the first time in four years after winning promotion from 1B via the play-offs and so swelling Limerick’s representation in 1A to three clubs, albeit that could be too thin a spread.
They’ve lost Jake Flannery but have a good crop of young players, including the Irish Under-20s pair of scrumhalf Ethan Coughlan and prop Kieran Ryan.
Lansdowne will be extra keen to mark their 150th anniversary season in style, and have recruited a batch of good young players in Leinster academy prop Marcus Hanan, former UCC captain Shane O’Hanlon from Cork Con, the Letterkenny lock Conor McMenamin from Queen’s and the richly promising Irish Under-20s outhalf Sam Prendergast (brother of Cian) as back-up to Charlie Tector.
They host Ballynahinch, who will hardly be as ravaged by injuries again this season and as the sole Ulster club have signed reinforcements from Queen’s after they missed out on promotion from 2A in the play-offs despite topping the third tier by 14 points.
Likewise, in light of UCC’s relegation from 1A, Cork Con have had an injection of young players (why don’t the IRFU publish a list of ins and outs?) but there’s been a changing of the guard with a core of stalwarts moving on or retiring; Luke Cahill, Alex McHenry and Duncan Williams among the latest to do so.
The latter has joined a coaching ticket now headed by Johnny Holland, with Billy Holland a consultant, as Brian Hickey moves to more of a ‘DoR’ role. While always a club who command respect, this looks like a season of rebuilding for Con, who start off with an interesting tie against Young Munster, whose lack of squad depth told after they played some superb rugby in the first half of last season.
After missing out by a point on the play-offs, Trinity go again with a trip to Garryowen. The highly-regarded prop Patrick McCarthy, younger brother of Joe, is in line for his debut tomorrow alongside another young tyro, Leinster ‘A’ prop Tom Connolly.
In any other year bar last season, Old Wesley would have comfortably won automatic promotion to the upper tier after topping the table by ten points when winning 16 of 18 matches, only to suffer the crushing disappointment of a 37-36 defeat at Donnybrook in the semi-finals by Johne Murphy’s Naas, who had finished 19 points below them in fourth place.
As it happens, Old Wesley again host Naas (subsequently beaten 30-15 by Shannon) in the sides’ opening game of the season. But Wesley have lost a few players and 1B looks even more ultra-competitive than 1A, with Eddie O’Sullivan’s newly-promoted Buccaneers liable to make a splash, as will no doubt be the case throughout all five divisions.
Energia All-Ireland League (2.30) - Division 1A: Cork Constitution v Young Munster, Temple Hill; Garryowen v Dublin University, Dooradoyle; Lansdowne v Ballynahinch, Aviva Stadium; Shannon v Terenure College, Thomond Park; UCD v Clontarf, Belfield.
Division 1B: City of Armagh v Buccaneers, Palace Grounds; Highfield v Banbridge, Woodleigh Park; Malone v UCC, Gibson Park; Old Belvedere v St Mary’s College, Ollie Campbell Park; Old Wesley v Naas, Energia Park.
Division 2A: Blackrock College v Ballymena, Stradbrook; MU Barnhall v Old Crescent, Parsonstown; Navan RFC v Cashel RFC, Balreask Old; Queen’s University v Dolphin, Dub Lane; UL Bohemian v Nenagh Ormond, UL Arena.
Division 2B: Belfast Harlequins v Sligo, Deramore Park; Dungannon v Galwegians, Stevenson Park; Enniscorthy v Greystones, Alcast Park; Galway Corinthians v Rainey Old Boys, Corinthian Park; Malahide v Wanderers, Estuary Road.
Division 2C: Ballina v Skerries, Heffernan Park; Bangor v Sunday’s Well, Upritchard Park; Bruff v Omagh Academicals, Kilballyowen Park; Clonmel v Midleton, Ardghaoithe; Instonians v Tullamore, Shaws Bridge.