Malone and Railway Union kick off the Energia Women’s All-Ireland Cup in Belfast tonight, as the prestigious national competition makes its return to the domestic calendar.
ENERGIA WOMEN’S ALL-IRELAND CUP:
FIRST ROUND: Saturday, November 20
‘Energia AIL: A 30 Year Rugby Legacy’, will air on TG4 this Sunday at 5.15pm, and will be available episodically to watch on YouTube from next Monday.
MALONE v RAILWAY UNION, Gibson Park, tonight, 8pm
The All-Ireland Cup’s opening round has thrown up two all-AIL fixtures, including this visit of reigning league champions Railway Union to Malone, who reached the quarter-finals in 2019/20.
Boosted by the elevation of their team-mate Neve Jones to the Ireland starting XV, Malone are hoping to put a lengthy injury list behind them, as well as four recent league defeats.
Malone head coach Jamie McMullan commented: “We are expecting a very tough challenge from quality opposition in Railway, but as we all know, when it comes down to cup rugby anything can happen.
“We’re very much a side that is developing but we relish the opportunity to test ourselves against quality opposition.”
Meanwhile, Railway Union’s Sonia McDermott and Ava Ryder come in for their first starts of the season. Clodagh McMahon, Hazel Simmons and Eva Martinez also step up for bench duty.
John Cronin’s charges will have their squad depth tested again, with Ireland playing Japan tomorrow afternoon and the Sevens internationals flying out to Dubai.
CAVAN v WICKLOW, Swellan Park, 12pm
Cavan host this intriguing high-noon cup duel, just a few hours before Wicklow starlet Ella Roberts is poised to make her Ireland debut as a replacement against Japan at the RDS.
Roberts’ younger sister, Beth, continues at out-half for Wicklow, and head coach Jason Moreton has said he will try and allow her to leave early to get to watch her sibling play in the green jersey.
As for their clash with Cavan, he noted: “We hope to try and move the ball tomorrow, weather-permitting, and try a few of our attacking plays. We’re starting a young team.
“There’s six players involved who have come up from the Under-18s in the last two seasons, including Laura Newsome and Nicola Schmidt who make their first starts in the forwards.
“Cavan will be up for this game and we know we have our work cut out. It wasn’t long ago that we were in the junior league and we know what to expect.”
For their part, Cavan are certainly fired up to give the best account of themselves on their All-Ireland Cup debut. They are joint-top of the Ulster Rugby Women’s Premiership table.
And while winning the Premiership title remains the squad’s main aim, out-half and captain Kate Bartley says they will represent the club – and province – with ‘great pride’ this weekend.
“We’re excited to showcase what we’re able to bring to the pitch and how we can play rugby,” she told the Anglo-Celt. Cavan have a couple of players with Ulster experience in Brigid Reynolds and Elizabeth McKeever.
Bartley added: “Our own league is the most important thing to us at the minute because we want to win that, so this is an extra bonus to just be able to showcase Cavan Rugby Club, showcase ourselves.”
KERRY v GALWEGIANS, O’Dowd Park, 12pm
On the day that their Kingdom compatriot Ciara Griffin ends her international career, Kerry make their All-Ireland Cup bow with Galwegians the visitors to Tralee Rugby Club.
Kieran O’Reilly’s side are well-drilled and their exposure to playing UL Bohemians last week in the Munster Senior Cup can only be good for them in the long run.
Kerry’s Ruth Murphy commented: “We are focused on giving a good performance against an AIL team and will enjoy the challenge and the occasion as we don’t get many chances to play a quality side like Galwegians.
“Our players have been having a good season with new players learning the game and playing along side some of our more experienced players.
“We have some injuries with like of Christine Arthurs and Caolainn Healy out. We have adjusted our pack and our backs with new players like Charlotte O’Neill and Niamh Loughman enjoying their rugby and improving game by game.
They have a promising half-back duo in Laoise O’Driscoll and Muirne Wall, an Interprovincial title winner with Munster this season. Second row Aine Enright was part of the province’s extended squad.
According to team manager Lisa Anglim, Galwegians will field ‘a mix of our usual starters and some new faces’, knowing that they will ‘have to put in a complete performance to get the win’.
Faith Oviawe and Ruby Lynch are rewarded for their recent form with their first starts for the Blue Belles, while Nicole Curley will make her senior debut off the bench on the back of ‘some excellent performances’ for the ‘Wegians 2nds.
Anglim added: “Young Sligo prop Hannah Coen is due to make her senior bow off the bench too having impressed with the Connacht seniors during the Interprovincial campaign.”
QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY (walkover win) v SUTTONIANS, Dub Lane
COOKE (walkover win) v TULLAMORE, Shaw’s Bridge
BALLINCOLLIG v OLBC, Tanner Park, 5pm
Galway club OLBC make their first ever trip to Tanner Park where Fiona Hayes’ Ballincollig’s side await them. The hosts are set to line out with a mix of experienced and new players.
Ballincollig director of rugby Denis Stevenson commented: “We are expecting a very competitive game from OLBC this weekend, as we know the underdog is always up to cause a shock against a team in the higher league.
“We’ll be using this as an opportunity for some of the players to put their hands up for selection for the remaining All-Ireland League games before the Christmas break.
“It’s also a chance for players returning from injury to get a hit-out before the Malone game next week, but we know we have to bring our ‘A’ game if we want to progress to the next round.”
OLBC, who are live-streaming this match on the club’s Facebook page, are currently sitting top of the Connacht Women’s League with three wins from three.
A young but ambitious squad only a year together, they recently defeated Westport 62-7 to win the Connacht Invitational Cup. Their preparations have included training time with Connacht Women’s Rugby Development Officer Wendy Hickey.
TIPPERARY v BLACKROCK COLLEGE, Loughtagalla, Sunday, 12pm
Blackrock College captain Michelle Claffey is looking forward to facing new opposition in Tipperary. ‘Rock are determined to mount a cup challenge after losing finals in 2017 and 2019.
The Ireland-capped centre commented: “Tipperary will be a good challenge as a relatively unknown team that will combine four traditionally strong clubs that have developed a lot of past and current representative players.
“It’ll give us the ability to test ourselves in preparation for the final block of AIL games, beginning next week. It’s also allowing us to continue assessing more combinations across the pitch.”
Claffey, who is hoping to get the most out of their ‘electric back-three’ this weekend, added: “The All-Ireland Cup is a fantastic competition and, with cup rugby, anything can happen.”
Blackrock have both O’Callaghan sisters in the starting XV, Meadhbh in the front row and Caoimhe on the wing respectively. Lisa Mullen features at out-half and Eimear Corri gains further experience at lock.
Hailing Corri’s athleticism and versatility, the Blackrock skipper said: “Eimear has slotted into the new role with ease, from wing to second row. A fantastic hybrid player.”
Meanwhile, Tipperary, who are captained by Aisling O’Hagan from full-back, readily accept that this is going to be ‘a big step up in opposition’ and ‘a very tough test’.
Their performances in provincial competition suggest that they are a team on the up, as tries from Kaitlyn Callanan, Brianna Heylmann and O’Hagan propelled them past Shannon-LIT last week. The 19-3 victory qualified them for the Munster Senior Cup final.
Tipp’s forwards coach Gary Beresford-Miller, who is part of the management team along with Jason Flannery and Sean Lanigan-Ryan, says they have recruited some experienced players and a number of new ones.
“We are starting to build some good momentum, with decent showings in the league and Munster Senior Cup,” said Beresford-Miller. “We have a small squad but the girls are fully committed, determined and a pleasure to coach.
“Unfortunately we do have a few injuries and number of unavailable players for Sunday. We’re hoping to give a good account of ourselves and see where we are in relation to one of the top teams in the AIL.
“These games are building blocks and we have seen with more game-time our players continue to grow and develop.
“If we can put in a good performance and show our full potential, we will let the result take care of itself.”