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Re/Max Leinster League

As we pass through the equinox and our evenings become shorter and shorter it can only mean one thing to the many provincial clubs around Leinster, the Re/Max Leinster League is almost upon us. With last years worthy champions Naas plying there trade in Division 3 of the AIL, a Division that is no stronger than Leinster League Division 1 and lacks the intensity of the many derby games that the Leinster league can throw up every winter, there is everything to play for this year.

As is the remit of any season preview, let's start with the lower divisions and work our way up.

Division 3

Ah, Division Three, a quagmire of a Division if ever there was one.  A Division that that now contains such sleeping giants as Wexford, Athy, North Kildare and Arklow mixed in with the young babies of Leinster rugby Malahide (reincarnated 1978), Rathdrum, Balbriggan, Clondalkin, Athboy and Clane.  Throw in stalwart clubs such as Birr, Gorey, CYM and Swords and you are left with a very competitive and difficult Division to get out of, as normally you will have 6 clubs vying for promotion.

Rathdrum will feel unlucky not to have won promotion last season with their only two defeats coming against the top two, including an agonising 17- 16 defeat to Tullow. In that match, they conceded 10 point in injury time.  This time around their pre-season form has looked good, including victories over Tullow at home and even more an even more impressive win away to Kilkenny. They will probably start as favourites for this league and should win promotion.

Who will join them is harder to call.  North Kildare and Athy would be looking for a quick return but with Kildare in turmoil after their coach Coleman Campbell walked, its hard to see them making an impression, certainly not in their current status. Whether he returns we will wait and see.  Athy are losing their better players with Mark Beaver and Dave Barry making the move to Division 1 contenders Cill Dara although Ross Bell has returned after briefly flirting with Coolmine.  Their new Kiwi coach Joey Carbury will be optimistic after their pre-season form produced wins against Cill Dara and Portarlington.

Balbriggan and Malahide are two of the more progressive Fingal clubs and Malahide could be contenders.  They have the facilities and now need to show the same ambition on the field. Other clubs that should be in contention include Clane, who with club Captain and ex-Barnhall player TJ Ryan in the side guaranteeing excellent line-out ball and with a gain-breaker in Ronan Murphy in the centre, go-forward ball will be assured.

There is always a club that re-groups over the summer and makes a big push, surprising a lot of teams.  This year Clondalkin have a big pack and have a lot of young talent coming through; this could be their year to be that club but only time will tell.

Predictions

  • Winner: Rathdrum
  • Runner-Up: Clane

Division 2

Traditionally a mine-field of a Division.  If a side can win on the road they'll be taking a big step towards promotion, conversely fail to win your home games and Division 3 waits like a hyena on the veldt.

Tullow, last years Division 3 winners, are a renowned yo-yo club.  It will be a big step-up but they demonstrated strength in depth last year with their J2's reaching the Provincial Towns 2nds cup final and should consolidate a not so comfortable mid-table position.

Longford could be one to watch.  They have Leinster Legend Victor Costello and former Connacht, Harlequins and Sale player Mel Deane as part of the coaching set-up, something which alone should guarantee structure and organisation.  They could be a club that springs a few surprises this year. In fact their game against Coolmine will be interesting as it will pitch Costello and Deane up against their former team mate Bernard Jackman.  Jackman is an experienced coach at this level and brought a limited Newbridge side far, he has moved on to a club that should be able to match his ambition on the field and off it. Coolmine were a Division 1 side two years ago but were young and inexperienced, two years of maturity can mean a lot in the physical stakes, add high-calibre players like ex-Lansdowne player Shane O'Neill and home favourite Eddie Melvin and it's easy to see why Coolmine will be one of the favourites for this Division.

Kilkenny, one of the giants of Junior Rugby, will have to be one of the contenders.  Although Kilkenny have never properly replaced Simon Manuel in the centre they have a pack capable of competing at this level and should re-group strongly and will be formidable at home. Mullingar will also look to for a quick return and in Cullion they have one of the most intimidating home grounds in Leinster Junior rugby.  Their home support can be very intimidating and a heavy pitch that gives the home side yet another advantage.

Enniscorthy, one of last years Division One teams, went down with a whimper and this year could be another struggle.  Other teams that might struggle this year will be Railway Union, who seem to constantly struggle to get out of the shadows of their next door neighbours Monkstown.

With rumours of civil wars in the midlands, it's hard to see either of Edenderry or Portarlington making an impression.  However, both sides are always hard to beat at home and should sustain another year in Division 2.  New Ross though, could find themselves in a relegation tussle and Wexford Junior rugby much like their hurlers seems to be in decline.

Two possible contenders for promotion could be Roscrea and Newbridge and their opening day fixture is the pick of the Division 2 clashes.  Newbridge have invested heavily again in overseas talent with Pale Nonu (brother of Ma'a Nonu) being their latest big name signing.  If he can cope with the heavy pitch at Rosetown they might surprise a few people this year.

Prediction 

  • Winners: Coolmine
  • Runners-up: Roscrea
  • Relegation: Railway Union and New Ross

Division 1

Finally Leinster League Division One.  As the gap in standards between AIL Division One and the other two AIL Divisions grows and grows, the opposite is happening at the other end of the spectrum with the gap closing between the top provincial junior leagues and AIL Division 3.  Many would even argue that they have surpassed it and when one sees the improvement year on year that comes as no surprise.

With the Super 8 possibly only 2 years away, this Division is just about to get even more competitive. So what does the season ahead hold for us?  Well, with Naas departed it's probably the most open it has been for a while. Nearly all the top clubs have been pretty busy in the transfer market with Boyne, Navan, Seapoint, Tullamore and Cill Dara being the most active.  In fact it's probably more than likely that the winners will come from that group of 5, with reigning Towns Cup holders Navan many people's favourites.

Looking over the the results from last year of newly promoted Ashbourne and Wicklow, it's hard to see if they can make the step up.  In Ashbourne's case their unbeaten run looks convincing but on closer inspection you'll notice that prior to their last game of the season, they had picked up no bonus points and their average winning margin was only 6 points. Woods, their player/coach is very much a kicking out-half and unless they add a running game they won't be at the business side come season end but neither will they be at the bottom end and adding the experienced Adrian Clark to their ranks will help.  Clark is a former Connacht professional and should help ensure that the Ashbourne pack is well drilled and well able to hold their own. Wicklow conversely play a running game and racked up some big scores in their last campaign, one of their key players last season was Niall Smullen and the former Irish colleges' player will be hard to replace.  Their opening day fixture down in the Curragh will tell us a lot.

Portlaoise, Monkstown, Dundalk and Garda, four teams that struggled last season, will need to improve significantly this year, if they are to be in contention this time around.  Dundalk last season were hampered by a freak injury to player/coach former South African international Dan Van Zyl, however Dan the Man is back fit this season so we should expect Dundalk to be closer to the top this year.  Portlaoise are traditionally a cup side and with the GAA season not near completion in Laois they could start slowly again.  Their coach last year Brett Igoe, the former national team coaching co-ordinator for Scotland, struggled to adapt to coaching Junior rugby and was at one stage leaving to join Carlow. That didn't happen and it will be interesting to see how the players react to him this year.  Portlaoise did manage to hold onto the services of Jamie Kavanagh and that should help them win more than they lose. Garda and Monkstown are two revolving door clubs with players constantly leaving and joining.  It will hard to predict where these clubs will end but without settled squads they will be closer to the bottom than the top.  Skerries turned things around last season but with an aging team and very little talent coming through they look destined for another mid-table position and new coach Moray Ericson will have his work cut out.

Cill Dara were one of the unluckier sides last season losing three games by a point and losing to local rivals and champions Naas by 5.  They're a side that have grown in stature and are starting to match on the paddock their impressive facilities off it. The Kildare Town club have bought in Tongan international Sila Va'enuku as their new player coach, but he'll have his work cut out to get what was probably the least potent backline in Division 1 last year working.  However, with the likes of Chris Moore and Damien Broughall in their pack they will dominate many games up front, but the lack of a cutting edge will probably see them finish just outside the top four.  Tullamore have some returning sons to call upon this year with Eamon Bracken, Gearoid O'Grady and Colin Finnerty all from Buccs, Rhys Morgan the talented Kiwi prop and John Peeters returns from Wales.  They could be a dark horse for the title this year.

The winners though will come from Seapoint, Boyne or Navan.  Boyne have launched an ambitious new development plan and are seeking to build a team to match it.  They have appointed Shane McEntee as their new coach although with Leinster development coaches Wayne Mitchell and Eoin Collins already on board it will be interesting to see how it works out.  Key signings this year will be ex-Lansdowne out-half Andy Tallon and ex-Garda prop Cillian Duffy.  They have brought in over ten players this year and it could take a while for this group of players to gel and that could cost them in the end.  Seapoint are probably the most attractive side in Junior rugby to watch and in Felix Jones they have a future Leinster professional in their ranks, a very talented player who deserves to be on higher stage.  If Seapoint can replace Declan Griffin and Carl de Chenu in their backline, both of whom have joined De La Salle, they will again be close to the top.  This year's title though is Navan's to lose.  Coach Brad Harris has strengthened probably their weakest unit with the signing of Clontarf second row John Duffy.  Navan do suffer blips, no better example than the 5 - 0 loss they suffered at home to Skerries last year, but  they were the only side to beat Naas last year and they also recorded a victory over Seapoint.

It will be very tight this year and it might come down to bonus points, one thing is for certain Junior rugby is Leinster is growing from strength to strength.

Prediction

  • Winners: Navan
  • Relegation: Garda and Wicklow

by Daniel Quinn, © 2007-10-04

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