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Junior Clubs Line Up For Ulster Bank League Round Robin Race

Junior Clubs Line Up For Ulster Bank League Round Robin Race

Back-to-back Ulster Bank Junior Cup champions Ashbourne will face stiff competition in the All-Ireland Provincial League Championship, which brings together four ambitious clubs who will battle it out in the coming weeks for a coveted place in the Ulster Bank League.

The Round Robin series begins this Saturday with newly-crowned Ulster Rugby Championship Division 1 champions Instonians making the trip to Ashbourne, who finished eight points clear of Enniscorthy at the top of Leinster Junior League Division 1A. Fresh from winning a superb domestic treble, a buoyant Ballina side will have home advantage in the first round against Munster’s leading lights, Bandon.

Frenchman Regis Sonnes’ hugely successfully two-year coaching tenure in west Cork is coming to an end soon, with a move back to his old club Toulouse in the summer. He guided Bandon to their first ever Munster Junior Cup title last season and, this term, ended the club’s wait for a first Munster Junior League Division 1 crown since 1992/93.

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They ended their league campaign with four bonus point wins in-a-row, with New Zealander Rhys Harrold and Santiago Gonzalez from Argentina wielding plenty of influence at half-back. Noting the work done before he arrived, Sonnes told the Southern Star: “I have to say that the base of this was laid a few years ago before my time when Bandon won the All-Ireland Under-18 cup, so we have very good young players who have now come in to the first team.

“We will do our best (in the All-Ireland qualifiers), but winning the league was the main focus. After winning the junior cup, it’s perfect. It will be a good experience for them, and we will see. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the guys after such a great season.”

Ashbourne, who have two home games like Bandon, are having a fairytale season of their own with their impressive All-Ireland Junior Cup title defence and recent capture of the Leinster Junior League Division 1A trophy for the first time. They could make further progress over the next four Saturdays, which include a Towns Cup semi-final against Enniscorthy.

Gavin Kennedy, Donal Crotty, Simon Deevy and Casey Dunne continue to be key players for Peter O’Donnell’s men, who also have evergreen 47-year-old forward Jeff Mahon still proudly donning the club colours. They were victorious in their most recent encounters with Bandon and Ballina, beating the Corkmen 33-8 in last season’s Junior Cup and triumphing 22-17 over Ballina in December’s semi-final.

Wilbur Leacock’s Instonians side lost only two of their 18 league games – away to Dromore and Ballyclare – during a tremendous title-winning run. Former Ulster forwards Roger Wilson and John Andress have brought bags of experience as player-coaches this season, while backs Michael Melville, David Scott, Gareth Burns-Delaney and Matthew Keane are popping up with regular tries.

Inst won the Ulster Qualifying League in 2014/15, the year after their relegation from the bottom tier of the All-Ireland League, but finished third in the Round Robin series that season. Regaining their senior status is a big goal for the Belfast outfit, with captain Josh Atkinson saying: “Credit to the boys, and credit to Wilbur and the coaching staff, it’s been a really hard season but we finished top of the league. You can’t ask for more. We’ve just to focus now, get through the play-off games and get us back into (Division) 2C.”

Ballina are having a second successive bite at the All-Ireland dream after finishing bottom of the Round Robin table last April. Indeed, the respective Connacht champions have struggled to contend for promotion in the last five years with Monivea, OLBC, Connemara, Westport and Ballina all ending up in fourth spot.

However, the Moy boys look to have kicked on since last season, retaining their Connacht League title and making it a remarkable treble with Connacht Junior Cup and Cawley Cup silverware also secured. David Newman and JP Leonard’s side have been scoring points for fun – averaging almost 35 points per game in the province – with captain Fergal Tully, who has shown leadership beyond his years at just 23, Daniel Molloy, Kieran Lindsay and David Brunker among their standout performers.

2017/18 ALL-IRELAND PROVINCIAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP FIXTURES:

– All matches to kick off at 2.30pm

Saturday, April 7 –

Ashbourne v Instonians; Ballina v Bandon

Saturday, April 21 –

Bandon v Ashbourne; Instonians v Ballina

Saturday, April 28 –

Ashbourne v Ballina; Bandon v Instonians

Saturday, May 5 –

Play-off between the Round Robin series runners-up and the second-from-bottom side in Division 2B

2017/18 Round Robin Series Fixtures