GAME OF THE DAY: Cork Constitution v Garryowen,
Cork Constitution v Garryowen,
(Temple Hill, 2.30)
Garryowen may have appeared an outside bet to be in the title race at the outset of this season, but few around Dooradoyle have been surprised by their performances that leave them on top of the All-Ireland League Division 1.
This afternoon, the sky blues face that truest of tests of all contenders as they travel to Temple Hill to face a Cork Constitution side likely to be strengthened by a number of returning Munster players.
If the Limerickmen are to follow through on their first seven games and mount a full charge, then victory by the Lee would begin 2013 in some style.
Having escaped relegation in a play-off in 2011, Garryowen have been steadily building their way back up and the addition of a number of new faces this season under new coach Tom Tierney has been crucial, according to captain Dave Sherry (pictured above).
"We brought in good players like Barry O'Mahony, Rory Brosnan, TJ Anderson and Matt Jarvis, while Sean Scanlon is to come in too," he explained. "That's a lot of firepower and it has definitely held us in good stead. Tom Tierney has come in with a lot of fresh ideas and it is a new environment."
Those changes have seen the Limerick side lose just once all season – in a derby against UL Bohemian in early November – and they lead the league by a point from Lansdowne, with Young Munster and Con a further five points back.
In the bizarre world of the All-Ireland League, this is the first post-Christmas fixture, before a three-week break, but Sherry reckons that today's clash will focus the Garryowen minds.
"It is good to be up around the top again," the back-row said. "I can't remember the last time we beat Con down there, they have won the Munster Senior Cup and we did that last year and can remember the lift we got from that. It will be tough."
A bonus point in defeat would keep the visitors' ambitions on track.
Verdict: Home win
Paddy Johns (Dungannon)
DUNGANNON, Ulster and Ireland hero Paddy Johns was an inspirational figure in his playing days when he led the club to the Division 1 title back in 2001, but he is finding the Midas touch harder to reproduce in charge of the Tyrone club.
The 42-year-old took over from Justin Fitzpatrick at the start of this season, renewing ties with a club he first played for as a seven-year-old, but his side are struggling in Division 1B, sitting second from bottom after seven games.
A teak-tough second-row who played 59 times for Ireland, Johns will need to draw on his vast well of experiences from Irish and English rugby to get his side out of trouble.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE UNCOVERED
9 The number of points separating Garryowen in first and Old Belvedere in seventh after seven games of an open Division 1A.
SEXTON INFLUENCE GROWS
Jerry Sexton has become the latest member of the family to make his mark at Templeville Road after getting a run in the St Mary's side and playing a part in the league champions' Leinster Senior Cup win over Lansdowne last month.
The rangey second-row follows in the footsteps of older brother Jonny, who starred for the club before becoming Leinster and Ireland's leading light, while Mark's two tries in the final game of last season secured the title for the Templeougue side.
Ulster Bank League fixtures
(2.30 unless stated)
Cork Constitution v Garryowen, Temple Hill; Lansdowne v Dolphin, Aviva Stadium, 2.0; St Mary's v Clontarf, Templeville Road; Young Munster v Old Belvedere, Clifford Park
Ballymena v Dungannon, Eaton Park; Bruff v Blackrock College, Kilballyowen Park; Buccaneers v UCD, Dubarry Park; Dublin University v Belfast Harlequins, College Park, ; Malone v Ballynahinch, Gibson Park
Clonakilty v Connemara, The Vale