A new All Ireland League season begins on Saturday for Ireland’s 48 senior clubs, and there is much to play for at the top.
Planned changes at the end of the season, which will see division one divided into an A & B section, will ensure a highly competitive season.
Galwegians will be striving to finish in that top eight, although they will have a tough job, having always struggled to retain their division one status.
This year, with former player Kevin Tierney at the helm, they open with an away match to UL Bohemians in Annacotty.
They have boosted their playing ranks, while also concentrating on the development of players through their junior ranks. Critical to their success this season will be a new half-back pairing. Ben Draper is a New Zealander from the King Country who takes over the No 9 shirt, and his partner is an up-and-coming Australian Matt Brandon. Brandon had been due to tour Ireland in the pre-season with the Queensland Reds but was forced out with injury, and he has since decided to join Liam Bibo in the Galwegian squad.
The Galway city side has also recruited South African Chris Briegal, a centre from Ballymena; Irish Colleges’ hooker Alex O’Sullivan; and former club player Liam Scahill who has returned from France. Boosting the ranks are u-20 players Nick McCarthy, Robert O’Beirne, Ross Shaughnessy, and Conor Whelan.
Although new Connacht recruits Ian Keatley, Kieran Campbell, and Fionn Carr have also been assigned to the club, it is unlikely they will see much action, while Liam Bibo, who played for the AIL side last season, is now becoming a regular on the provincial side. However fringe players like John Lyne, Conor Muldoon, and Brian McGovern should be available for part of the season to boost Galwegians up front with Ivan Muldoon once again captaining the side from the backrow.
Traditionally strong up front, where Dave Nolan and Liam Scahill should form a strong second row, Galwegians’ new recruits should certainly improve their back line. Both Alipate Tuivelaka and Brett Sweeney have returned to the USA and New Zealand respectively, but with Draper, Brandon, John Cleary, and Briegal, the Galway city side may possess a more potent attacking thrust.
That will be tested in their opening against UL Bohs - a side captained by Martin McPhail that finished in the top half of the table last season. While Galwegians have been given odds of 125/1 to win the league, UL Bohs have odds of 18/1.
If Galwegians are to realise any pre-seasonal ambitions to finish in the top eight, they will need to hit the ground running.
Corinthians, who finished mid-table in division three last season, open their campaign with a home fixture against Nenagh Ormond (2.30pm ). They also have been busy on the recruitment front, with five new players joining during the close season. They include Kenneth Diffenthal, Connacht hooker Joe Merrigan, who joined from Galwegians, Patrick Cunningham (Buccaneers ), Michael Kelly (Bective Rangers ), and Tony Hall (Shannon ).
They will have been boosted by their victory over Galwegians in their recent Connacht Senior League encounter, and after a couple of disappointing seasons in which they were too often beaten by a single score, they could well improve their standings this year.
Connemara, always a little slow to start, finished in fifth place last season. Well coached by Henry O’Toole and Aidan O’Halloran, the Blacks are always a force at home. They had a tough game against Barnhall in the opening round of the AIB Cup, and they should open against Sunday’s Well with a victory.
Buccaneers, now back in division one after a spell in the second division, will host Dolphin at Dubarry Park. They will be looking to consolidate their position in the top flight with fullback Niall O’Hara captaining the side. Simon Rolleston and Mark Bruce form the key halfback partnership, with last season’s Player of the Year Alex Hayman joined by another Scot Niall Lear in the three-quarters line. They have signed young John O’Brien from Connemara, Louis Tonkin from Galwegians, Niall Lear from England, and James King (La Quila ). They face a tricky assignment against Dolphin, but will hope the home venue sways this opening contest.