Nineteen months ago. A time when lock-ins were a thing before lockdowns ever were and the only time you wore a mask was at Halloween. If one lets the mind dwell on it too long, it would get a tad overwhelming just how different the world is and how much we have been through since the last round of All Ireland League fixtures were played.
Club rugby in Ireland has suffered greatly in this time and needs all the support it can get as it rises like a phoenix from the ashes. As I have mentioned in a podcast previously, while professional rugby and all of the glitz and glamour that comes with it is a real spectacle, there is something about leaning over the advertising hoardings close to the action followed by a pint and a bowl of stew in the clubhouse after the game that really hits different.
For these clubs, local provincial action is all that they have seen since the beginning of the pandemic and even that has been fractured and disrupted so to return to AIL action after last year’s ultimately-doomed attempts at a restart will be like Christmas coming early for so many involved in the club game up and down the country.
With that all being said, to say that this weekend is the first All Ireland League action since the pandemic is false as the women’s AIL got underway last weekend. The standout result of the newly-expanded 10-team competition was victory for Ballincolig over Suttonians in their AIL debut. There were also wins for Railway Union, Old Belvedere and UL Bohemians.
This week, Ballincolig make the long journey from Cork to Belfast to take on Cooke, Galwegians host Bohs and Malone visit Old Belvedere at Ollie Campbell Park. Railway Union welcome Wicklow to Park Avenue while Suttonians take on Blackrock. It is sure to be another unpredictable and exciting weekend.
Back to the men’s’ game and the afore-mentioned Ollie Campbell Park will host the first game of the weekend on Friday night as Belvo host Naas in Division 1B. That game kicks off at 8pm and will be shown live on Old Belvedere TV on YouTube.
The action in Division 1A gets underway on Saturday afternoon and the standout fixture is at the back pitch at the Aviva Stadium as Lansdowne host Cork Constitution. Con were a perfect 14 for 14 before the 2019/20 season was cut short and are the current holders having lifted the 1A title in 2019.
Terenure had a big recruitment drive over the summer and travel to The Mardyke to take on UCC with the likes of former Leinster men Jordan Coghlan and Cathal Marsh in their ranks – the former coming off stints with Leicester and Nottingham and the latter returns from the US after a spell with MLR side Rugby United New York.
There is a Dublin derby at Castle Avenue as Clontarf host UCD while Garryowen travel to College Park to take on Dublin University. The final game in 1A sees a Munster v Ulster clash at Tom Clifford Park as Young Munster welcome Ballynahinch.
Division 1B has a mouthwatering set of fixtures to kick things off on top of the Friday night lights opener. City of Armagh make the trip to County Down to take on Banbridge in an Ulster derby while Malone welcome Navan to Gibson Park. Old Wesley v Shannon at Donnybrook is a classic AIL fixture while last year’s pace-setters Highfield take on a St. Mary’s side looking to return to the top table of Irish club rugby.
Division 2A is full of sleeping giants as you can see from the fixture list as a couple of provincial derbies are the highlight. In Munster, UL Bohs host Dolphin while in Ulster Queen’s University welcome Ballymena to the Dub. Elsewhere, Old Crescent visit Hatrick Park to tackle Rainey Old Boys, Nenagh Ormond take on MU Barnhall and in Athlone, Buccanneers welcome Cashel to Dubarry Park.
In Division 2B, it’s Belfast Harlequins v Malahide; Blackrock College v Galway Corinthians; Galwegians v Ballina; Greystones v Dungannon and Sligo v Wanderers. Division 2C’s opening weekend looks like this – Bangor v Bruff; Enniscorthy v Midleton; Skerries v Omagh; Sunday’s Well v Clonmel and, last but far from least, Tullamore v City of Derry.
What a weekend in store for rugby fans across the four provinces. 573 days (but who’s counting) since the last men’s AIL fixture, here we are. Bars are getting stocked, changing rooms brushed, boots cleaned and gum shields molded. Club rugby is back and, boy, are we glad to see it.
Mark did some excellent club rugby profiles for us earlier in the year - click here to check them out
MEN'S AIL DIVISION 1A
Saturday, October 2
CLONTARF V UCD
DUBLIN UNIVERSITY V GARRYOWEN
LANSDOWNE V CORK CONSTITUTION
UCC V TERENURE COLLEGE
YOUNG MUNSTER V BALLYNAHINCH
WOMEN'S AIL DIVISION 1
Friday, September 24
WICKLOW 0-63 OLD BELVEDERE
Saturday, September 25
BLACKROCK COLLEGE 11-25 RAILWAY UNION
MALONE 25-17 GALWEGIANS
BALLINCOLLIG 14-13 SUTTONIANS
UL BOHEMIAN 46-12 COOKE
Saturday, October 2
GALWEGIANS V UL BOHEMIANS
COOKE V BALLINCOLLIG
OLD BELVEDERE V MALONE
RAILWAY UNION V WICKLOW
SUTTONIANS V BLACKROCK COLLEGE
Mark Strange (@realmarkstrange) : I am a freelance sports writer who has been published in soccer, rugby and baseball. I am also an avid fan of ice hockey and just returned last year from a year living and working in Vancouver. I previously played and was PRO for Randalstown Rugby Club before a knee injury cut me down in my prime! I became a Leinster fan when I was younger due to a certain Felipe Contempomi and I am the only blue in a sea of white in Ulster.
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