The 20th year of All Ireland League rugby begins on Saturday with Galway clubs Galwegians, Corinthians, and Connemara fighting for honours in each of the three divisions.
The newly-structured top tier sees Galwegians in division 1B, having finished just outside the top eight last season. Corinthians are back in division two after a hugely successful campaign in division three last season. Finishing league winners but losing the final to Old Wesley, they have been promoted to division two. Connemara will continue to fight in the third division. Their aim will be to consolidate their position with hopefully a mid-table finish. And Connacht’s fourth senior club Buccaneers will join local rivals Galwegians in division 1B, having finished 12th in division one last season.
Both Galwegians and Buccaneers will be aiming for a top finish this season and the chance to be promoted to the top section. It must be a realistic aim for both clubs in this newly-structured home and away league. However in such a small group of eight teams, also with the bottom two being demoted, this year’s league is expected to be highly competitive.
Galwegians open their campaign on Saturday against Dungannon at Crowley Park (2.30pm ), and it is imperative they capitalise on home advantage.
Kevin Tierney and Eamonn Molloy continue to coach a side that has made a number of astute signings this year. Former Galwegian and Connacht prop Peter Bracken returns to Glenina after several years in England to anchor the front row along with Jamie Stephens and hookers Dermot Murphy and Conor Muldoon. Samoan Ati Olive is a new addition to the club and starts at No 8 alongside captain Ivan Muldoon, Ambrose Conboy, Derek Boyd and Liam Casserly in the backrow. Crucially, Galwegians have improved their backline options with the addition of another Samoan centre Aifai Esera, Dave Clark and Mark Butler from UL Bohs, while Connacht’s development player Tiernan O’Halloran is expected to star for the Glenina outfit. With Ross Shaughnessy, John Cleary, and Rob O’Beirn returning, Molloy believes Galwegians have added much-needed potency to their backline.
The squad also boasts several Connacht players. Although the likes of John Muldoon, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr are unlikely to feature, scrumhalf Kieran Campbell, Michael Swift, Ronan Loughney, and Liam Bibo may play more regularly.
Having finished above the opposition last year, Eamonm Molloy believes Galwegians are confident in this division, and will be aiming for a top finish. Ballynahinch, who have enjoyed a meteoric rise since becoming a senior club, will pose a big threat, while fellow newcomers Young Munster have regrouped, winning their first Limerick Charity Cup final for 13 years when they overcome a more fancied UL Bohemians side 11-10.
“Given the home and away structure this season, the teams will know more about each other than in previous years. However we would be confident and our ambition is to win the division,” says Molloy.
“Our pack was strong last year. We were very solid up front, but our backs were limited. This year our backs should pose a bigger threat, particularly out wide.”
Galwegians have started the season well, retaining the Connacht Senior League, while last weekend they warmed up with a hard-fought friendly against reigning champions Shannon, losing 33 - 28. First half tries by Kieran Campbell and Ross Shaughnessy (2 ), converted by Mark Butler sent Galwegians into a 21-7 lead, but Shannon, inspired by international Jerry Flannery drew level by half time (21-21 ). An early second half try by Liam Scahill, converted by Butler put Wegians into a seven-point lead, but Shannon’s greater experience proved the difference in the end when a late converted try sealed the game.
This weekend they will be missing several key players. Rob O’Beirn, John Cleary, and Dave Nolan, who is likely to be out for several months with a shoulder injury, are all on the injured list.
Corinthians have also enjoyed a successful pre-season, more recently overcoming Wanderers by 30 - 20 after extra time in the opening round of the AIB Cup. They were well worth the victory, and this should provide them with confidence as they step up to division two this season. They are facing a tough opening challenge against UCD who, along with Terenure, were relegated from division one last season. It is also an away match for Corinthians so this will be a big test.
Corinthians have the bulk of last season’s team who demonstrated their winning mentality by finishing top of division three. They also have new Connacht recruit Thomas Timani in their ranks, and he made his debut last week with a winning try in extra time. The 22-years-old Aucklander is regarded as a powerful runner with good finishing skills, and although he is more than likely to be on Connacht duty for much of the season, he should give Corinthians a real attacking option this weekend.
New out half Shane Moynihan showed some great footwork and skill last weekend, and with an accurate boot, he will be a big asset to the Cloonacauneen outfit.
Connemara, in division three, are also away on this opening weekend. They face Nenagh Ormond in a difficult assignment. Nenagh will harbour top four ambitions, having finished in sixth place last year, while Connemara have always struggled away from home.
However, Connemara are nothing if not hardy, particularly at Monastery Field. Despite their limited resources, they have survived year after year, and although they have never reached the lofty heights of a second-place finish as they did in 2001/2, they are a hugely competitive side that must always be respected. It would be good for Connacht rugby to see them moving back up the table from their 13th place finish last season.
Galwegians v Dungannon: J Stephens, D Murphy, P Bracken, M McClearn, D Boyd, A Conboy, I Muldoon, A Olive, K Campbell, R Shaughnessy, T O’Halloran, D Clarke, A Tuiloma, F Carr, M Butler. Replacements, C Muldoon, J Naughton, L Casserly, R Dillon, J Cleary.
AIB League fixtures (Saturday 2.30pm ): Division 1B, Galwegians v Dungannon; Young Munster v Buccaneers; Division 2, UCD v Corinthians; Division 3, Nenagh Ormond v Connemara.