The Energia All-Ireland League reaches a fairly full-on and thrilling climax over the next two weekends with pretty much everything still on the line, and like never before or probably ever again.
In a one-off format amid fears Covid might again affect the club campaign, it was decided there would be no automatic relegation or promotion this season. Hence, after 18 rounds of 25 matches across all five divisions, in addition to the four teams in the Division 1A playoffs to decide the champions, there are another 16 clubs involved in promotion play-offs as well as ten clubs taking part in two-legged relegation playoffs.
All 15 matches kick-off at 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon, with festival atmospheres expected at Castle Avenue and Lakelands Park as Clontarf host Cork Constitution and Terenure host Lansdowne in the Division 1A semi-finals.
Clontarf topped the table with a phenomenal 17 wins out of 18 in what is widely regarded as a very competitive and entertaining top flight, and with Angus Lloyd pulling the strings behind their powerful pack and facilitating their all-round game, they are seven-point favourites to reach the final.
Clontarf beat Cork Con 31-24 at home in round three and 24-12 in Temple Hill last month, but the first was affected by a red card and the latter was Con's only loss without a bonus point.
Winning big knock-out games is in Con's DNA. Declared champions after Covid hit the 2018-19 season, when they'd won 14 out of 14, the six-time winners have had an injury-hit campaign yet with stalwarts like captain Aiden Moynihan and Niall Kenneally have hung in there.
Ultimately they edged out Trinity, All-Ireland Under-20 champions for the third season running last week when beating UCD after extra-time in a thrilling Fraser McMullen final, by a point.
Leinster's rearranged tour to South Africa has also hit 'Tarf, given David Hawkshaw is in South Africa, as is Martin Moloney, Alex Soroka, Vakh Abdaladze and Brian Deeny, albeit the latter two haven't featured much this season.
Cork Con, Lansdowne and Clontarf have claimed 11 titles in total between them, whereas Terenure have never been champions yet are in hot form and are the 5/4 favourites to claim their first AIL crown, with their clutch of former pros like Harrison Brewer, Jordan Coghlan and Cathal Marsh. They have a strong pack and have been scoring some wonderful tries, and their seconds' J1 league success demonstrates their strength in depth.
Lansdowne haven't hit the heights since their Bateman Cup final win over Young Munster in February, but ala Con could have a big performance in them. Alas rain is forecast.
Today isn't all about glory though. UCC and Ballynahinch meet in the first leg of a 1A relegation play-off after being cast adrift. UCC's sole win was away to Ballynahinch, but the latter won 19-9 at the Mardyke and UCC are likely to be without Scott Buckley, Alex Kendellen, Jack O'Sullivan and John Hodnett.
Akin to Clontarf, the ever-improving Old Wesley dominated 1A and will feel even more aggrieved if they don’t win promotion. They won 16 out of 18, which includes a meaningless 61-12 defeat away to Shannon a fortnight ago, and did the double in two high-scoring games over Naas, although Johne Murphy’s side will regard their semi-final in Donnybrook as a free shot.
Highfield host Shannon in what is liable to be a spicy Munster derby, bearing in mind Shannon won 6-0 at Coonagh in December and drew 9-all at Woodleigh Park, the only time Highfield failed to win at home in the league this season. Two games without a try suggests another taut arm-wrestle.
After 15 wins out of 18, 14 of them with bonus points, Queen’s should overcome a revived Ballymena in the semi-finals, with Cashel-Buccaneers likely to be a tighter semi-final.
Promotion from 2B looks harder to call given only eight points covered a big-name quartet. Greystones host Corinthians at Dr Hickey Park and Belfast Harlequins entertain Blackrock College, who they’ve beaten narrowly twice. The relegation play-off is an intriguing Connacht derby between Galwegians and Ballina, the former having won in Ballina a fortnight ago 20-14.
By contrast Enniscorthy finished 31 points clear of their 2C semi-final opponents Tullamore, while Skerries-Bangor is liable to be closer. After the great escape by Sunday’s Well, Clonmel and City of Derry meet over two legs to preserve their senior status, with Instonians to replace the losers after edging out Bernard Jackman’s Bective in the junior round-robin.
As with the relegation play-off second legs, the promotion play-off finals will take place next Saturday, April 30th, with the higher-ranked sides at home, and the Division 1A final will be held at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday week, May Day.
All-Ireland League (2.30):
Division 1A semi-finals: Clontarf v Cork Constitution, Castle Avenue. Terenure College v Lansdowne, Lakelands Park.
Division 1A relegation play-off, first leg: UCC v Ballynahinch, the Mardyke.
Division 1B promotion play-offs, semi-finals: Old Wesley v Naas RFC, Energia Park; Highfield v Shannon, Woodleigh Park.
Division 1B relegation play-off, first leg: Navan v Banbridge, Balreask Old.
Division 2A promotion play-offs, semi-finals: Queen's University v Ballymena, Dub Lane; Cashel v Buccaneers, Spafield.
Division 2A relegation play-off, first leg: Rainey Old Boys v Nenagh Ormond, Hatrick Park.
Division 2B promotion play-offs, semi-finals: Greystones v Corinthians, Dr Hickey Park; Belfast Harlequins v Blackrock College, Deramore Park.
Division 2B relegation play-off, first leg: Galwegians v Ballina, Crowley Park.
Division 2C promotion play-offs, semi-finals: Enniscorthy v Tullamore, Alcast Park; Skerries v Bangor, Hompatrick.
Division 2C relegation play-off, first leg: Clonmel v City of Derry, Ardgaoithe.