Clontarf begin their rugby title defence with UCD clash
RUGBY: ULSTER BANK LEAGUE
Saturday, September 17
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated
GARRYOWEN v LANSDOWNE, Dooradoyle
Lansdowne ended last season with three defeats on the bounce, falling to seventh in the table. But recent Leinster Senior League Cup wins over Trinity, Clontarf and St Mary's suggest they are hitting form.
Winning in Limerick on the opening day would be a serious statement from Mike Ruddock's men, who are now led by Ireland Club international prop Ian Prendiville.
Former Ireland star Denis Leamy is Garryowen's new forwards coach. He will have to quickly plug the back row gaps left by departing captain Josh Hrstich (Japan), Dave Sherry (Old Belvedere) and Nottingham recruits Jordan Coghlan and Shane Buckley. On the positive side, Munster's Sam Arnold could be a valuable asset on his comeback from injury.
ST MARY'S COLLEGE v CORK CONSTITUTION, Templeville Road
The murmurs about St Mary's have been particularly positive of late, with the Dubliners recruiting very well on their return to Division 1A.
Trinity duo Paddy Lavelle and Nick McCarthy, along with Lansdowne scrum half Paddy O'Driscoll and Cork Con's own Cathal O'Flaherty, have all made the move to the Templeville Road club.
Constitution, who ran Clontarf close in last May's memorable final, look in good fettle after a pre-season tour of Canada and local cup wins over UCC (34-3) and UL Bohemians (31-6).
UCD v CLONTARF, Belfield Bowl
Clontarf begin their title defence with a repeat of their 2015/16 opener which ended in a 24-16 victory for them at Belfield. They do so without two star names - Mick McGrath, who is currently on trial with Leicester Tigers, and Joey Carbery who is making waves with Leinster.
Two more defeats followed for UCD last term against 'Tarf, including April's semi-final loss, so they certainly owe the north Dubliners one.
Andy Skehan heads up the students' newly-appointed coaching team, who oversaw a galvanising tour of South Africa and an unsuccessful Leinster Senior League Cup defence.
YOUNG MUNSTER v OLD BELVEDERE, Tom Clifford Park
Beaten semi-finalists last April, Young Munster have a new head coach in Gearoid PrendergaSt Talented second row Sean Duggan captains a side missing the newly England-based Gearoid Lyons and Ben Betts.
The Cookies' summer recruits include Munster's Cian Bohane, recent Ireland Under-20 cap Dan Walsh and Shannon's Shane Airey, while Garryowen pair Dave Sherry and James McInerney have left Limerick for Old Belvedere.
'Belvo went unbeaten through their Leinster Senior League Cup pool, with out-half Willie Staunton and their scrum showing well. Blackrock back Sean Coughlan is another notable newcomer.
BALLYNAHINCH v BUCCANEERS, Ballymacarn Park
Buccaneers return to the scene of their Division 1A relegation/promotion play-off defeat last April. They will look to right the wrongs of that 41-19 reversal, marshalled by captain Kolo Kiripati who helped them recently retain their Connacht Senior League crown.
Ballynahinch were on the lookout for a new head coach, but Derek Suffern remains in place as they bid to bounce straight back to the top flight.
Steve Macauley and Jerry Cronin return to the club, while Paul Pritchard, last year's captain who has moved to Old Belvedere, David McGuigan (knee reconstruction) and the retired Adam Craig head up 'Hinch's list of absentees.
DOLPHIN v UL BOHEMIANS, Irish Independent Park
New Dolphin head coach David Corkery, aided by Denis Hurley, is aiming to put in improved structures and 'consolidate' the club's position in Division 1B this season.
Equally, there is a fresh look to UL Bohemians. Former forwards coach Christy Neilan is now head coach and the squad, bolstered by returning ex-captain Ed Kelly, have moved base into the University campus. "The facilities are second to none and it's very exciting for the club going forward," admitted Neilan.
Dolphin and Bohs were both knocked out of the Munster Senior Cup last week, losing to Highfield and Cork Con respectively, so this league opener could be a real dogfight.
NAAS v GALWEGIANS, Forenaughts
A huge day for Naas as they entertain Galwegians in their opening Division 1B fixture, and a moment to savour for their player-coach Johne Murphy.
Murphy, who has recruited his old school friend Fionn Carr fresh from the professional ranks, said: "It's a balancing act for us, now that we are up among the top 20 teams in the country. We want to do as well as possible but we must continue to have that club/community feel about it."
Former second row Brian McClearn has taken up the coaching reins at Galwegians, who fielded a tasty half-back pairing of Rory Parata and Conor Lowndes against Buccs recently.
SHANNON v BALLYMENA, Thomond Park back pitch
Entering his second season in charge of Shannon, Marcus Horan now has former captain Tom Hayes involved as lineout/defence coach. Another familiar face, ex-international prop Tony Buckley, is part of the wider squad, while new lock Riley Winter, who played for Australia Under-20s in 2015, could make a big impact.
Andy Graham's Braidmen finished third last season, well behind the leading two, but they have enough squad depth to push again for promotion.
Among their Ulster allocation are promising young forwards Matthew Rea, Michael Lagan and Adam McBurney, with Graham stating: "On paper we've a very strong squad - not many guys that are over the age of 25 - and if we can get it together, it will be an exciting season. The players are hungry to do well."
UCC v OLD WESLEY, the Mardyke
UCC warmed up for their first league tie by beating Bruff 42-24 in the Munster Senior Cup, with full-back Chris McAuliffe scoring two of their six tries.
Rising up from Division 2A, the Cork youngsters won seven of their nine home games in 2015/16. Their form at the Mardyke could be vital as the year progresses.
Lansdowne scrum half Adam Griggs has joined Old Wesley as backs coach, and new captain Darren Horan wants the Donnybrook dwellers to use the 'invaluable experience' of missing out on the play-offs last season to drive them on.