The sixteenth season of the AIB All-Ireland League gets under way on Saturday. irishrugby.ie previews the eight matches down for decision in Division One.
AIB LEAGUE DIVISION ONE:
Weekend One (Saturday, October 15, all kick-offs 2.30pm)
Ballymena v Lansdowne, Eaton Park, Ref: Ger English (Munster)
A new coaching tandem of Brian O'Meara and Liam Toland for Lansdowne, as well as a hatful of new signings - the most impressive of which looks to be Kiwi fly half Corey Burt. Mainstays of recent campaigns, backs Fiachra Baynes, Ken Kennedy and Enda Bohan and Kevin Corrigan in the front row will offer the headquarters club a solid spine.
Ballymena are occupying second place in the First Trust Ulster Senior League currently and home advantage, as well as the controlling boot of Ulster fly half Adam Larkin, should be enough to net a home win. Having Ireland Sevens star Michael McComish remain on at Eaton Park is just as important as a new signing for the Braidmen's coach Steph Nel.
Last Season: Ballymena: Fifth; Lansdowne: Fourteenth, Won Relegation Play-Off against UCC 29-6
Previous Meetings: 04/05: Lansdowne 5 Ballymena 45; 03/04: Ballymena 14 Lansdowne 11; 02/03: Lansdowne 8 Ballymena 12, Lansdowne 3 Ballymena 10, Div 1 Semi-final; 01/02: Ballymena 23 Lansdowne 25
AIL Title Odds: Ballymena: 14/1; Lansdowne 33/1 (Paddy Power)
Lansdowne: F Baynes; N Walshe, G Stafford, K Kennedy, B McGeever; C Burt, S Whelan; J Lyne, K Corrigan, E Bohan, D Toner, S O'Connor, D Lavin, N Ronan, R Boucher.
Belfast Harlequins v Garryowen, Deramore Park, Ref: David Keane (Leinster)
A repeat of last season's Division One semi-final meeting, Garryowen will be wary of a Harlequins side desperate to impress new coach Andy Ward, who starts in the back row, on the opening day.
New 'Quins fly half Michael Glancy has proven an able deputy for the departed Ian Humphreys but some poor performances in the Ulster Senior League do not augur well for the Deramore men.
Garryowen's last league visit to Belfast saw them lose 50-17 - a similar result is not on the cards this time, but Paul Cunningham's men are a year older and wiser and may pull off a shock result.
Last Season: Belfast Harlequins: Third, Runners-up; Garryowen: Second, Beaten Semi-finalists
Previous Meetings: 04/05: Garryowen 6 Harlequins 13, Div 1 Semi-final: Garryowen 8 Harlequins 15; 03/04: Harlequins 50 Garryowen 17; 02/03: Garryowen 12 Harlequins 10; 01/02: -
AIL Title Odds: Harlequins: 7/1; Garryowen: 12/1 (Paddy Power)
Harlequins: J Lowe; J McLaughlin, D Cave, M McKeever, P McKenzie; M Glancy, R Spee; C Keown, S Philpott, R Moore, G Rourke, M Willis, R Devonshire, D Dougherty, A Ward.
Clontarf v Dublin University, Castle Avenue, Ref: Colin Stanley (Leinster)
A Dublin duel to savour. Trinity endured a luckless first campaign in the top flight last season, drawing five pivotal games which could have seen them drop back down to the second tier.
Long-time coach Tony Smeeth has lost the services of prop Forrest Gainer and number 8 Jamie Heaslip to other clubs, but with the bulk of their recent All-Ireland Under-20 sides coming through, they do have ability, if not strength, in depth.
'Tarf have also lost a number of players in the summer transfer market, but have recruited well with Shannon scrum half Fiach O'Loughlin, Cork Con's Peter O'Brien and the aforementioned Heaslip, whose services are required by Leinster presently, all joining the Northsiders.
There was only three points in last season's meeting but with home advantage, 'Tarf should pull through by 6-10 points.
Last Season: Clontarf: Fourth, Beaten Semi-finalists; Dublin Uni: Twelfth
Previous Meetings: 04/05: Dublin Uni 11 Clontarf 14; 03/04: -; 02/03: -; 01/02: -
AIL Title Odds: Clontarf: 11/2; Dublin Uni: 80/1 (Paddy Power)
Clontarf: P O'Brien; M Rantz-MacDonald, N O'Brien, M Hewitt, D Keane; K O'Dowd, F O'Loughlin; J Wickham, N Carson, R Sweeney, A Trennier, J Duffy, D Ffrench, D Quinn, J Ellison.
Cork Constitution v UL Bohemian, Temple Hill, Ref: Alistair McKay (Ulster)
This match doubles up as an ODM Munster Senior Challenge Cup second round fixture and a qualifier for the inaugural AIB All-Ireland Cup.
Con are deserved favourites given the fact that UL were Division Two champions last season. Still Bohs beat Oxford University in a recent friendly and in Aussie Ben Martin, they possess an undoubted match winner.
Con have the makings of an excellent side this season under new captain Frank Cogan's wing. Points machine Pat McCarthy may be missing but Highfield fly half Conor Quaid and Ireland Under-21 internationals Frank Murphy andf Richard Lane are excellent signings.
Former Ireland hooker Terry Kingston is also assisting Con coach Brian Walsh this season so expect good things from the Temple Hill lot, and an opening day home win.
Last Season: Cork Con: Eighth; UL Bohs: First, Champions (Div Two)
Previous Meetings: 04/05: -; 03/04: -; 02/03: UL Bohs 15 Cork Con 41; 01/02 -
AIL Title Odds: Cork Con: 9/2; UL Bohs: 100/1 (Paddy Power)
Dungannon v Buccaneers, Stevenson Park, Ref: Olan Trevor (Munster)
Dungannon are legitimate dark horses for the league title, and at 33/1, irishrugby.ie may be tempted to have a little wager on Jeremy Davidson's men.
A strong run has seen them to the top of the First Trust Ulster Senior League in the early season and last season's Ireland Under-21 captain Gareth Steenson also seems to be in fine form with his right boot. The availability of Ulster winger Tyrone Howe, who has been squeezed out of the provincial XV by young guns Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, is a plus too.
Their pack is immensely talented - Declan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Caldwell, Stephen Ferris and Oisin Hennessey are products of the Ulster and Ireland Under-21 set-ups and the addition of Ulster flanker Campbell Feather to the ranks is a shrewd one.
Buccs, under new coach Geoff Moylan, looked well poised too for a good season. They have recruited well and the new half back partnership of Kiwi David Greene and Ireland Sevens international Mark Bruce is certainly one to watch. 'Gannon to win today though.
Last Season: Dungannon: Seventh; Buccs: Eleventh
Previous Meetings: 04/05: Buccs 12 Dungannon 10; 03/04: Dungannon 3 Buccs 9; 02/03: Buccs 14 Dungannon 8; 01/02: Dungannon 22 Buccs 19
AIL Title Odds: Dungannon: 33/1; Buccs: 16/1 (Paddy Power)
Galwegians v Blackrock College, Crowley Park, Ref: Peter Fitzgibbon (Munster)
Very little has separated these two sides in recent league meetings - one point last year, one the previous year and two in 2002/03. Whatever the history, Galwegians' new coach Paul Young, the former Newport Gwent Dragons hooker, will be hopeful of starting the season well.
Tom Allen and Scott Donald, 'Wegians top two try scorers last season, have both left Crowley Park however, and resources look limited.
'Rock have a new coaching team of New Zealander Dave Dillon, who also captains the side at flanker, Barry Gibney and Emmet Farrell and should have the scoring ability to come away with the points. Former Trinity flanker Diarmuid Laffin is one of their better signings from the summer.
Last Season: Galwegians: Ninth; Blackrock: Tenth
Previous Meetings: 04/05: Blackrock 13 Galwegians 14; 03/04: Galwegians 17 Blackrock 18; 02/03: Blackrock 31 Galwegians 33; 01/02: Galwegians 40 Blackrock 18
AIL Title Odds: Galwegians: 50/1; Blackrock: 20/1 (Paddy Power)
St Mary's College v Shannon, Templeville Road, Ref: Alain Rolland (Leinster)
What a way to celebrate your return to Division One rugby - by entertaining the seven-time champiosn on your own patch? Well, that's the task that has fallen to new captain John McWeeney and his St Mary's side, and it's one that they are likely to relish.
Unbeaten in early season fare, Mary's have the makings of a good top flight side, but they will probably not find their feet until the end of the month.
It's hard to see anything other than a Shannon win despite the fact that their coach Mick Galwey has lost 12 of last season's title-winning squad. There's still a glut of contracted players at Thomond Park that would be the envy of any Division One coach. Having Ian Sherwin on board as assistant coach will certainly help the former Ireland captain and lock.
Their recruitment has largely been from UCC - second row Donnacha Ryan is probably the highest rated player to come in. Three seasons ago, on the opening day, Shannon, as reigning champions, were surprised by Mary's, 26-21, at Templeville Road. Galwey and company will come prepared this time around.
Last Season: St Mary's: Second, Runners-up (Div Two); Shannon: First, Champions
Previous Meetings: 04/05: -; 03/04: St Mary's 13 Shannon 34; 02/03: St Mary's 26 Shannon 21; 01/02: Shannon 24 St Mary's 3
AIL Title Odds: St Mary's: 25/1; Shannon: 9/4f (Paddy Power)
UCD v County Carlow, Belfield, Ref: Simon McDowell (Ulster)
Last season's Division One top points scorer Eoghan Hickey is back for more with the students. Expect another excellent season from the blonde bombshell who has terrorised defences all over the land with his line kicking and play in the loose.
Former Leinster assistant coach Bobby Byrne has rejoined the UCD backroom staff.
Carlow have had perhaps the most interesting transfer policy of the lot this season - four Polish players, two Kiwis and one Pacific Islanders have signed on for action at Oak Park. Minus their top points scorer from last season, Richie Murphy, and coach Ray Ward, who has left to regain the reins of the Blackrock College SCT, the midlanders have an arduous campaign on their hands.
The effort is certainly there from Carlow, but their home form and how quickly their new signings gel is likely to be key in them staying up this season.
Last Season: UCD: Sixth; Carlow: Thirteenth
Previous Meetings: 04/05: Carlow 22 UCD 29; 03/04: UCD 19 Carlow 34; 02/03: Carlow 31 UCD 18; 01/02: UCD 44 Carlow 33
AIL Title Odds: UCD: 20/1; Carlow: 125/1 (Paddy Power)
Carlow: C Raui; T Bonnefoy, C Moore, G Jacob, R Jackson; B Murphy, S Gibbons; P Brennan, A Galavan, K Corrigan, A Mihajlavic, W Whitten, D Cox, P Symes, T Tasola.