The cream of junior club rugby across the island will be on display this weekend as the All-Ireland Junior Cup kicks off. Ashbourne begin their bid for a third title in-a-row, while Waterpark, who are back in the tournament for the first time in nine years, host cup newcomers Carrickfergus in a novel pairing.
ALL-IRELAND JUNIOR CUP FIRST ROUND: Saturday, October 27
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
ASHBOURNE v WESTPORT, Milltown
Ashbourne’s Leinster League form may be poor, with four defeats in their opening five matches, but they are always capable of turning it on in an All-Ireland Junior Cup game. An eight-match winning streak in the competition has earned them two national titles.
They come up against Westport in a repeat of the 2016 first round clash which they won 28-10 at Carrowholly. Casey Dunne, captain Sean McKeon and Simon ‘Dippy’ Deevy remain key figures for the Meath men, who have added the ball-carrying grunt of brothers Andrew and Justin Whittaker from South Africa.
Walter Gibbons’ Westport are in buoyant mood after beating their Mayo rivals Castlebar (30-26) under their new floodlights. Kevin Corcoran, a stalwart of their back-three, remains a top class finisher, while Danny McGowan impressed with 15 points from the tee last Saturday night.
CIYMS v MONIVEA, Belmont
Belfast club CIYMS return to the All-Ireland Junior Cup after a four-year absence. They reached the semi-finals during the 2014/15 season, taking eventual champions Dundalk to a replay, but repeating that feat looks a tall order.
An untimely spate of injuries has contributed to CIYMS’ six-match winless run in Ulster Championship Division 1, including a 54-0 hammering at the hands of Dromore a fortnight ago. The fresh start of a cup campaign could do wonders for Gareth Fry’s charges.
Monivea fell at the first hurdle to Kilfeacle & District last season, but head to Belmont as Division 1A leaders in Connacht. Their four hard-fought wins include successes at Sligo and Buccaneers, with out-half Ger O’Connor’s boot and their maul in fine form.
CONNEMARA v BALLYCLARE, Monastery Field
It is a tighter turnaround for Connemara who won 13-7 at home to Creggs last Sunday in the Connacht League. They are second in the division behind Monivea and have notably scored 101 points so far with three try-scoring bonuses in four rounds.
As well as an increased try-scoring threat generally, the Galway side have the accurate left boot of Henry O’Toole to mop up with any penalty opportunities. This looks set to be a cracking contest as Ballyclare travel to the picturesque Clifden setting as Ulster Championship Division 1 leaders.
Luck has not been on their side with this being Ballyclare’s third first round away trip in as many years. Robbie Reid has stepped up in the absence of injured out-half Bobby Smith, while captain Grant Bartley and vice-captain Joel McBride – at lock and inside centre respectively – have key roles for Mike Orchin-McKeever’s men.
CREGGS v CLONMEL, the Green
Creggs also have a six-day turnaround to negotiate as they gear up to host their first ever All-Ireland Junior Cup match at the Green. Wins over Westport and Ballina have them fourth in Connacht’s top flight, having gained promotion as Division 1B champions last spring.
These are exciting times for the ambitious village club, right on the border between County Galway and Roscommon. They have a newly-laid 3G pitch and Aodha Hession is the latest Creggs player to earn an Ireland Under-18 call-up.
Pat Cunningham’s men go in as underdogs against a Clonmel side that are three from three at the top of Munster League Division 1. The Tipperary outfit have scored 11 tries in their last two league games, with Munster Junior player Luke Hogan (3) and Dylan Cadogan (2) notching five of them.
INSTONIANS v DUNDALK, Shaw’s Bridge
This mouth-watering Belfast clash brings together two of the competition’s previous finalists – Instonians lost the 2016 final to Enniscorthy, a year on from Dundalk’s 55-5 demolition of Bangor in the 2015 decider.
Indeed, Dundalk return to Junior Cup action following an all-too-brief stint in the All-Ireland League. Now led by player-coach Mike Walls, their recent 36-24 Leinster League win over Ashbourne, coupled with last Saturday’s one-point loss to Bective Rangers, bodes well.
Former professionals John Andress and Paul Marshall are Instonians’ new player-coach duo this season, with the latter even stepping in at out-half against Portadown last week. Their experience and tactical nous could be crucial tomorrow, along with home advantage.
RICHMOND v ENNISCORTHY, Richmond Park
Enniscorthy, the 2014 and 2016 champions, travel to Limerick in the opening round for the second year running. They lost 30-25 to Newcastle West twelve months ago, but look a stronger force now with four straight wins putting them top of Leinster League Division 1A.
Notably, Richmond also lost by five points to Newcastle West last weekend, giving up top spot in the Munster League. Getting beyond the Junior Cup’s first round has been difficult for Richmond with defeats to Ballyclare, Newbridge and Academy in the last seven years.
Player-coach Tadhg Bennett, an All-Ireland League winner with Shannon in 2009, has made Richmond tough to beat, particularly at their Canal Bank home, but ‘Scorthy should prevail if Killian Lett, Ivan Jacob and captain Tom Ryan can have their way.
WATERPARK v CARRICKFERGUS, Ballinakill
Former All-Ireland League club Waterpark are hoping to make home advantage count against cup debutants Carrickfergus. The Waterford side are back in the Junior Cup after a nine-year absence and continue to bring through underage talent, with Eoin O’Connor, Thomas Ahern and Ben Daly all earning Ireland U-18 caps last season.
Coached by Davy Scott and Mickey Rainey, Carrick have shown their battling qualities in the Ulster Championship’s top tier with a win, two draws and a loss in the opening four rounds. They have had two tries each from number 8 and captain Ryan McGonigle, Fionn McCormick and David Moore.
Both teams are excited about embarking on a new challenge and trying to mount a bid for national silverware. A ferociously competitive 80 minutes is guaranteed at Ballinakill which has not hosted an All-Ireland Junior Cup fixture before.
WICKLOW v KILFEACLE & DISTRICT, Ashtown Lane
This is arguably the match of the first round as George Naoupu’s in-form Wicklow team take on Kilfeacle & District, last season’s runners-up. Wicklow warmed up for their historic Junior Cup debut with impressive Leinster League victories over Boyne (32-3) and Ashbourne (22-17).
They have a strong spine to their XV with Kiwi backs coach Billy Ngawini at full-back, former Ireland U-18 Clubs international Niall Earls at out-half, Naoupu at lock and ex-Lansdowne flanker Charlie Butterworth in the back row.
Kilfeacle also have a New Zealand influence with out-half Brodie Flannery kicking 13 points in their opening Munster League triumph over Crosshaven. Adding to the occasion tomorrow, the Six Nations, Triple Crown, Champions Cup and PRO14 trophies will be on display at Ashtown Lane.