An expanded ten-team Energia Women’s All-Ireland League welcomes both Wicklow and Ballincollig, as the club game gets its deserved spotlight on a bumper weekend for Irish Women’s rugby.
2021/22 ENERGIA WOMEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE – ROUND 1:
Friday, September 24 –
WICKLOW v OLD BELVEDERE, Ashtown Lane, 8pm
The excitement levels have reached fever pitch down Wicklow way, as Jason Moreton’s young side prepare for a real baptism of fire – playing four of the country’s top clubs in the first five rounds.
The All-Ireland League newcomers have added former Ireland Sevens international Niamh Ni Dhroma as player-coach, but unfortunately she picked up a hamstring injury during last week’s 38-7 friendly win over Cooke.
Leinster starlet Ella Roberts, fresh from the Vodafone Women’s Interpros, and her sister, 18-year-old out-half Beth, can light up the Wicklow back-line, along with centre Vicky Elmes Kinlan, who has just linked up with the Ireland Sevens programme.
Also highly rated by Moreton are second rows Shauna Soady and Ciara Brennan, with the head coach stating: “We want to continually progress each week, and our goal is to contest the final of the bottom six competition after Christmas.
“We have a daunting task playing the top four teams in the first five games, but the girls are really up for it. It’s a season of growth and we’re excited to get going on our All-Ireland League journey.”
Old Belvedere have been boosted by the return of Hannah Tyrrell, just a few short months on from her international retirement and a summer spent spearheading the Dublin Ladies’ All-Ireland SFC title defence.
With Tyrrell slotting straight in at out-half, ‘Belvo head coach Johnny Garth said: “Hannah obviously brings fantastic experience, she has great leadership qualities and is a quality player.
“Preparations have been tough given that we had around twelve girls involved in the Interpros, while also not having access to our international representatives either.
“We’re expecting a very tough game from Wicklow. They will certainly get the respect they deserve from us, and we know that we’ll have to be at our best to come away with a win.”
Belvedere, who were 48-3 winners of the sides’ Energia Community Series clash last October, switch Elise O’Byrne-White in as a temporary scrum half as Jemma Jackson is unavailable this week.
Jenny Murphy, one of Leinster’s best performers across the Interpro campaign, packs down at number 8, while Belgian Sevens international Manon Nairac is poised to make her club debut off the bench.
Saturday, September 25 –
BALLINCOLLIG v SUTTONIANS, Tanner Park, 3pm
Women’s All-Ireland League returns to Cork for the first time since 2018 as Ballincollig make their much-deserved bow. They certainly made a big statement of intent by bringing in Fiona Hayes and Mairead Kelly as coaches.
The club’s director of rugby, Denis Stevenson, explained: “Bringing in both Fiona and Mairead has been great as they bring both AIL and interprovincial coaching experience. Preparations have been going very well.
“It is the first time in the club’s history that we will be fielding two adult Women’s teams. We’re inexperienced at AIL level, obviously, so we understand this is a development year for us.
“It’s been over 11 years since the club competed at Division 1 level, but we are hopeful of getting a handful of wins and building a good foundation for the coming three seasons as the AIL is ring-fenced.
“After Christmas will tell a lot when the league splits and we see how far we’ve come as a club. It’s going to be exciting seeing how the squad go as we are a year waiting for this day now.”
Gemma Lane and Eimear Minihane, who were part of Munster’s Championship-winning squad, will be key players for Hayes’ side, and Katelyn Fleming, Christine O’Sullivan and (co-captain) Gillian Coombes have been training the house down.
Facing Suttonians first up is ‘a good marker’ for Ballincollig, according to Stevenson, with the north Dubliners having made the step-up to AIL level in 2019/20, claiming a very creditable mid-table finish.
Sutts are guided by new head coach Stephen Costelloe, who is eager to build on the solid foundations laid by Robert Forbes. A 15-10 victory over Blackrock was the highlight of their last tilt at the league.
Of their players returning from provincial duty, centres Shannon Touhey and Catherine Martin combined well for Connacht. Leinster winger Meabh O’Brien is always a threat out wide.
Speaking about the squad’s ambitions and the first round fixture, Costelloe said: “With a new coaching team, some new faces in the squad, it’s very much a transitional year for us. We are excited, the ladies are excited.
“I think there are a few players to keep an eye on for a myriad of different reasons. Jools Aungier is a product from the mini and youth set-up in the club and is the first to go from mini/youth up which is great credit to the club.
“We’re expecting a battle from Ballincollig, Fiona Hayes was a serious competitor when she played. I can imagine she will instil that in her team. We’ll have to be at our best for the full 80.
“It’s great to have some of our provincial players back. The experience they add to the group is fantastic and especially the guidance for the new players.”
BLACKROCK COLLEGE v RAILWAY UNION, Stradbrook, 2.30pm
Blackrock have also bolstered their Ben Martin-led coaching ticket, which now includes former Ireland Grand Slam-winning coach Philip Doyle. ‘Goose’ is looking after the defence and scrum.
Martin commented: “We’ve been able to maintain a large portion of the squad, and the additional players and coaches joining us will add some excitement, quality in detail for position-specific development and competition in key positions.
“Being a World Cup cycle, we are looking forward to assisting the development of those internationals who will get the privilege of representing us on the biggest stage there is in Women’s rugby.”
They begin their campaign with a tasty live-streamed Dublin derby, bringing back memories of their dogged 16-12 home win over Railway from February 2020.
Maeve Og O’Leary, one of the stars of Munster’s Interpro success, features in a classy ‘Rock back row that is anchored by fit-again number 8 Hannah O’Connor, who was sidelined recently for Ireland through injury.
Aoife Moore and Maggie Boylan come in for their debuts at looosehead prop and on the left wing respectively, with captain Michelle Claffey partnered in midfield by Katie Fitzhenry, who retired from international rugby in May.
Meanwhile, Railway Union are ready to launch another defence of their league crown from 2019. Things were shaping up well before the 2019/20 season was cancelled due to Covid-19 – they were sitting second in the table, with nine wins from a dozen games.
John Cronin, their director of rugby and head coach, says the Park Avenue outfit are in ‘a reasonable space’ despite pre-season being a little fractured due to interprovincial and international commitments.
“The depth chart and maturity profile of the squad is good. Our experience is that it’s the third or fourth year in our programme where the athlete really starts to break out,” he explained.
“I think Grainne O’Loughlin, Sonia McDermott and Alex McGuinness are ready for big years and will announce themselves on a national stage. None of them made interpro squads, which quite frankly I found astounding.”
Captained again by versatile back Niamh Byrne, Railway have lost a couple of stalwart players in Emma Taylor and Juliet Short, but Cronin is backing their strength-in-depth to deliver another rewarding league run.
“Megan Collis is a little earlier in her development but is a young prop of great potential, similarly Maggie MacKinnon will kick on with regular rugby. Amanda McQuade’s positional switch will be very interesting.”
Nikki Caughey and Molly Scuffil-McCabe switch back from Leinster duty, leading a back-line that has Canadian MacKinnon stationed at outside centre. Twin sisters Siobhan and Kate McCarthy are part of an athletic pack.
MALONE v GALWEGIANS, Gibson Park, 2.30pm
Malone and Galwegians were in the bottom two when the 2019/20 All-Ireland League was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Malone found results very hard to come by, but they did win the corresponding fixture in January 2020, overcoming ‘Wegians 31-17 on home soil.
Jamie McMullan leads a new-look coaching team at Gibson Park, ably assisted by defence coach Niamh McHugh and Malone man Derek McCallion.
McMullan, who was previously involved with Grosvenor RFC and Loughborough Students, said of pre-season: “We saw a real development and progression as a result of the players’ commitment and positive attitude which sets us up well for the season.
“I feel we have an exciting and talented group of players that hopefully will get their reward for the hard work they have put in.
“The first few rounds of the league for us will be about focusing largely on our game and how we want to make the most of the talent we have through the way we play.”
While fulsome in his praise of club captain Peita McAlister, who returns from provincial action, McMullan picked out young Ulster winger Fern Wilson as a brilliant prospect.
“Fern is an incredibly gifted athlete who works very hard on her development. Anyone who saw her come off the bench against Munster recently will have seen the kind of impact we’re hoping we will see on a week-to-week basis.”
In the face of an expected ‘stern and physical’ challenge from Galwegians, Malone will have nine players who represented Ulster available to them this weekend.
“What is more pleasing for me is players such as Jasmine Ward, Sophie Armstrong and Anna Stanfield getting their opportunity as a result of their dedication, hard work and development throughout pre-season,” added McMullan.
Galwegians have flown under the radar of late, quietly going about their business. Connacht captain Jarrad Butler heads up this season’s coaching team, which also includes Tracey Gannon and Lisa McDonagh.
“We’re lucky to have had a number of new transfers coupled with returning experienced players that should make for an exciting mix,” said Galwegians team manager Lisa Anglim.
“Kate Feehan is coming in off the back of a very successful interprovincial season with Connacht so we expect her to do well.
“Maria Gorham is also in line to make her senior AIL debut off the back of her involvement with the Connacht Under-18s, as is Munster’s Saskia Morrissey.
“Max Deegan and Ruby Lynch are both homegrown Galwegians players having come through our youth system here from Under-14 to senior, and it will be an especially proud day for the club to see them make their senior debuts.”
With captain Mary Healy among the Connacht contingent lining out tomorrow, Anglim added: “We’re expecting a fast, tough game from Malone who always graft until the last minute. We feel we have a strong team out that will hopefully secure us the win.”
UL BOHEMIANS v COOKE, UL North Campus, 3pm
Ireland great Niamh Briggs makes her All-Ireland League debut as UL Bohemians head coach, quickly refocusing on club matters after helping Munster to regain the Interprovincial crown.
UL’s director of Women’s rugby, Niamh Kavanagh, said: “Briggsy comes with so much knowledge of the game and has been building a very strong squad culture and professionalism for the coming AIL season.
“It’s great to have a coach like Niamh who was part of a very successful Munster senior team. She is backed up by our assistant coaches Hillary Cleary, Jay Traynor, Connor Botha and Sarah O’Gorman.”
Arguably the player of the Interprovincial Championship, Chloe Pearse captains Bohs from the front row. Courtney Duhig, the former St. Mary’s scrum half, starts alongside Nicole Cronin.
Senior newcomer Laura Stritch, the player-of-the-match last week against Shannon, will line out on the left wing for the Red Robins. West Cork youngster Abbie Salter-Townshend is on the opposite wing.
While not wishing to single out any particular player, 2013 Grand Slam winner Kavanagh said: “With more girls starting younger, the level of skills they have by the time they come to senior rugby is amazing.
“There’s certainly one or two (players) to keep an eye on, like all the AIL clubs. But I am more excited to see the injection of energy both our young players and other clubs’ players will bring to the AIL this season.”
On tomorrow’s opponents, she added: “Cooke are always a strong and physical team to face and to have them in our opening game will be a real test for our players’ physicality.
“I know our players love to play Cooke as you can be sure it’s a hard-hitting game and it will be like this for the full 80 minutes which is always great rugby.”
Cooke boss Daniel Allen dishes out a handful of league debuts for the trip to Limerick, including starts for Tamzin and Georgia Boyce in the back-line and Naomi McCord in the back row.
The front row has a powerful look to it, with captain Aishling O’Connell and Ilse van Staden, who was excellent against Connacht, both returning from Ulster duty.
Amanda Morton and Hannah Kilgore continue their half-back partnership, while former Ireland Under-18 Sevens international Kelly McCormill – lining out at inside centre – will pack a punch in both defence and attack.
Beth Cregan, who captained Ulster through the Interpros, commented: “We have Naomi and Lucy Thompson new in as transfers, and Tamzin and Georgia are both Under-18 graduates – they have both transitioned well into playing senior rugby.
“Bohs are always going to be a well-drilled physical side with talent right across their team.
“We have six returning Ulster players back into the squad for this weekend, with another six due to return in the next few weeks.”