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Munster derby the headline act on opening weekend of All-Ireland League season

The 2019/20 Energia All-Ireland League gets underway this weekend.

Energia All-Ireland League, Saturday 5 October 
[KO 2.30pm unless stated]

Division 1A

Ballynahinch v Terenure College, Ballymacarn Park

BALLYNAHINCH’S EARLY-SEASON RESULTS have been up and down, their qualification for the Ulster Senior Cup semi-finals blotted by a trio of Ulster Rugby Premiership defeats. The latest one saw them lose 34-28 last Saturday to Banbridge, despite an improved second-half performance.

sean-skehan Terenure head coach Sean Skehan. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Former Ulster academy player Sean O’Hagan, one of ‘Hinch’s new recruits, is in the out-half hot seat, and Brian McLaughlin will be looking for a steady start on the Co Down club’s return to the top flight — particularly with some of their Ulster contingent required for Celtic Cup duty.

Sean Skehan’s new coaching tenure at Terenure received an early boost with last week’s Leinster Senior League title win — the three O’Neill brothers, Kevin, Stephen and Mark, still very much to the fore. Having fought back brilliantly to avoid relegation last season, it will be interesting to see where ‘Nure fit in the 2019/20 pecking order.

Cork Constitution v Garryowen, Temple Hill 

Cork Constitution begin their Division 1A title defence with a mouth-watering Munster derby. They had 24 points to spare when they last hosted Garryowen in the league, but it should be a much closer affair tomorrow judging by their recent Munster Senior Cup encounter.

tomas-quinlan Cork Con's Tomas Quinlan. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Three Aidan Moynihan penalties gave Con a hard-fought 9-7 quarter-final victory, cancelling out Andrew O’Byrne’s 19th-minute try. Half-backs Tomas Quinlan and Ryan Foley are back with the league champions, with 24-year-old talent Quinlan returning after a year with French club Narbonne.

Garryowen only won half of their league matches last term, finishing fifth in the table and a full 14 points behind the last of the semi-final qualifiers, Dublin University. Conan Doyle’s charges really need to bounce out of the blocks, particularly as they face three of last year’s play-off sides in the opening rounds.

Dublin University v UCC, College Park

Contrasting fortunes for these College teams last season with Dublin University breaking new ground as fourth-place finishers, and UCC needing a play-off final win over Old Wesley to retain their Division 1A status. The youth of Trinity’s squad last year means almost all of them are back for more.

Max Kearney and Colm Hogan miss out through injury today, but Tony Smeeth’s youngsters start the new campaign with a nicely-balanced side led by new captain James Hickey. With Rowan Osborne called up by Leinster, Louis O’Reilly, a 2018 Leinster Senior Schools Cup winner with Blackrock College, gets the nod at scrum-half.

louis-oreilly Louis O'Reilly starts at scrum-half for Trinity. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

UCC were pipped 31-29 in an eight-try thriller on their most recent trip to College Park. The Cork outfit have also held onto the majority of their squad, including prolific young out-half James Taylor who amassed 188 points last season as the division’s top scorer.

Lansdowne v UCD, Aviva Stadium back pitch

South Dublin rivals Lansdowne and UCD clash on the Aviva Stadium’s back pitch tomorrow, with former captain Kevin Croke making his league debut as UCD head coach. He is assisted this season by Brett Igoe and Mark McGroarty, while Jonny Guy replaces fellow back rower Alex Penny as captain.

It is as you were at Lansdowne with Mike Ruddock beginning his ninth year at the helm. Former UCD players Tim Foley and Mark Flanagan will make their first league appearances for the headquarters club, the latter having played professionally in the second row for Leinster, Saracens and Munster.

mark-flanagan-and-ian-keatley Mark Flanagan [left] makes his debut for Lansdowne on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Fellow newcomers Neal Moylett, Ross Barron, who partners Foley at half-back, and James Reynolds are also part of a youthful Lansdowne team, along with former Ashbourne and Leinster U18 Clubs lock/flanker Joey Szpara who is fresh out of the U20 grade.

Young Munster v Clontarf, Tom Clifford Park

Beaten finalists last May, Clontarf get back on the horse for another shot at their third league crown. Aaron Dundon returns to the coaching team after a two-year spell at Ulster, while former St Mary’s College pair Sean Kearns and Jack Aungier and ex-Ireland sevens international Gearoid Lyons are new members of the playing squad.

They have lost the McGrath brothers, Mick and Rob, to fellow Dublin clubs and both Declan Adamson and Sean O’Brien to the Connacht Academy, but ‘Tarf remain among the title favourites. This is a sizable test first up, heading to Young Munster’s Greenfields fortress.

jack-aungier Jack Aungier is with Clontarf this season. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Coached again by Gearoid Prendergast, the Cookies have built some encouraging early-season momentum by reaching the Munster Senior Cup and Limerick Charity Cup finals. Skilful out-half Evan Cusack has joined from relegated Thomond and could turn out to be an excellent signing. UL Bohemians centre Harry Fleming has also made the move.

Division 1B:

City of Armagh v Naas, Palace Grounds

City of Armagh were left with plenty of ‘learnings’ after their debut season in Division 1B. Their ambitions were set far higher than an eighth-place finish, but just two more wins — one with a bonus point — would have put them in the promotion play-offs.

Armagh boss Willie Faloon reckons the division is even stronger this year, while his settled squad is ‘a year older, more experienced and just as ambitious’. The same high hopes reside at Forenaughts where Naas are aiming for their third top-four finish in four years.

dan-van-zyl Dan van Zyl is part of the Naas coaching ticket. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After the Johne Murphy era ended in play-off heartbreak, South African duo Dan van Zyl and Johan Taylor now head up the Naas coaching ticket. Player-coach Ben Swindlehurst has responsibility for the backs and skills. The Cobras will feel they owe Armagh one after a loss and a draw last term.

Highfield v Malone, Woodleigh Park

A bumper home crowd is ensured for Highfield’s long-awaited Division 1B debut, with three Cork clubs now in the top two tiers. Their player-coach, former Munster prop Tim Ryan, packs down again at tighthead with largely the same set of forwards from last year’s title-winning campaign.

Another former professional player, Ulster and Ireland back rower Chris Henry, is looking forward to his first league game in charge of Malone. His maiden selection includes outside centre David Busby, who left Ulster at the end of last season, and promising young hooker Claytan Milligan.

chris-henry Chris Henry is in charge of Malone. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Determined to make a significant impact on the division, Highfield captain Fintan O’Sullivan said: “We’re not really used to just being mid-table. We’re kinda thinking top-four, minimum. I know a lot of people don’t back us, but we always back ourselves. Everyone keeps telling us that it’s a big step and all this crack, but I think we’re ready for it.”


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Navan v St Mary’s College, Balreask Old

A novel pairing for this league opener as Navan kick off their historic first season in Division 1B. After three promotions in as many years, Ray Moloney’s side are relishing the prospect of facing some of the country’s biggest and most-storied clubs. There is free admission tomorrow for this special occasion.

St Mary’s finished sixth in the table last April with an even split of nine wins and nine defeats. The pick of their early-season outings was a 31-25 Leinster Senior League win at Clontarf, and putting together a consistent run of results will be key if Steve Hennessy’s men are to press for promotion.

conor-ryan-with-the-trophy Navan captain Conor Ryan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Most of Navan’s leadership will come from the back row where forwards coach James O’Neill and captain Conor Ryan both start tomorrow afternoon. Centres Evan Dixon and Riaan van der Vyver both have experience of the higher divisions and will be looking to hit the ground running.

Old Wesley v Banbridge, Energia Park

Promotion was agonisingly out of reach last season for Old Wesley, who finished only three points behind champions Ballynahinch and lost the play-off final to UCC. So, Morgan Lennon’s men will certainly not be lacking motivation on their return to league action.

Wesley’s newly-appointed captain Iain McGann feels they are well placed to contend again, saying: “During the second half of last season we felt we finally clicked as a team. We’re hoping to begin this season with the same form that we finished last season with.”

a-view-of-energia-park-ahead-of-the-game Energia Park hosts tomorrow's clash. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Mark McDowell has moved across from local rivals Ballynahinch to take over as Banbridge head coach. They were impressive 34-28 bonus point winners at ‘Hinch in the Ulster Rugby Premiership last Saturday and will field an unchanged team, which includes the experienced centre pairing of Andrew Morrison and Jonny Little.

Shannon v Old Belvedere, Thomond Park back pitch

Former star out-half Tadhg Bennett steps up as Shannon’s head coach as they attempt to bounce back quickly from last season’s relegation from the top flight. Player-coach at Richmond for three years, he is assisted by Mike Storey and Pat Brown in the new Shannon set-up.

Old Belvedere are their first-round visitors and the Limerick club will be hoping it is a good omen as they defeated ‘Belvo 18-3 in their first home game two years ago, on the way to winning the Division 1B title. But the Dubliners, led by number 10 Steve Crosbie, boast a strong team. 

steve-crosbie Steve Crosbie is Belvo's key man. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

Dean Moore returns from a few years in France and Limerick to join Connor Owende in ‘Belvo’s engine room, while former Trinity flanker David St. Leger and backs Ariel Robles and James McKeown, who have both moved across from Clontarf, will also start. 

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