SCHOOLS RUGBY: Belvo must smash Rock to reach the promised land
For 'Rock the route is particularly tricky and it is last year's runners-up who get it all underway on Sunday when they take on traditional rivals Terenure in the top tie of the round.
It is a match guaranteed to have Donnybrook shaking at the rafters. 'Rock will start as hot favourites but, as 'Nure well know, there's nothing new or unusual about that.
New Williamstown coach Ray Ward is fully focussed on the task in hand. Beset by injury not least in the shape of star man Luke Fitzgerald (at least four weeks from full fitness) Ward still has an abundance of talent from which to select. Ten of last year's squad are available again this time round although out-half Ian Madigan has just returned to action following a frustrating season on the sideline.
The same number of players have also represented the province since September. Niall Morris, David Moore, Vasya Artemiev, Aidan Wynne and Fitzgerald behind the scrum with Donal Byrne, Paul Ryan, James Leyden, Brian Cawley and skipper David O'Connor up front.
Minus their representative players, they lost to Pres Cork and more recently to Methody (13-14) but otherwise it's been mighty impressive with a 13-5 victory over top English side Colstons (effectively the Bath Academy) the undoubted highlight of the season to date.
For Pádraig Forde and Terenure it has been up and down with a relatively new side containing only five players from last year.
Backs Richard O'Neill and Cathal Morley and front row forwards Gary Hamilton and Gavin Tully have played for Leinster, while William Collins, Matthew O'Sullivan, Conor Diskin, Kevin Gallagher and Shane English have been on the fringe. Talented centre Morley captains the side.
Terenure will approach this game with an 'everything to gain' mentality and are more than capable of turning pre-competition form on its head but 'Rock, given their exceptional strength in depth, should prevail.
There are three ties down for decision on Tuesday with Pres Bray against St Michael's the pick. Sean Adamson has continued as coach to the Pres side beaten by 'Rock in the Junior final of '04. Many of that talented squad - six of whom picked up Wicklow County GAA Championship medals with Bray Emmets - are included again now.
Wing Tom Corr and full back Sean Quinn have represented Leinster at U19 with Leinster U18 and Irish Schools squad member Jason Harris Wright the jewel in the Bray crown off the side of the scrum. Pres beat Newbridge (8-7) to qualify for the top section and are, along with Gonzaga, one of only two schools outside of the main seven to qualify for both Senior and Junior without participating in Section B.
Not that Gary Coakley or St Michael's will be treating the Pres challenge lightly but for once the Ailesbury Road school has a draw with distinct possibilities. They and Castleknock appear good bets for a decent run in the upper half.
Having coached Leinster U19s to success in the interpro series, Coakley will be hoping that two of that squad - Michael Twomey and Andrew Cummiskey - can do the business in driving the school to success again now. Talented out-half Cummiskey is in his fifth season on a cup side; two Junior, including a winner's medal in 2003 and three at senior.
These two along with U18 representative players Conor Cleary, Robert Shanley, Rajan Reilly and Tyrone McKillen make for a well balanced side of enormous potential. On the same day in Carlow, country cousins Kilkenny and Roscrea come head to head. Both schools won their respective groups in this season's Senior League. Jeff Carter coaches a side with a strong work ethic.
Leinster U18 player Wesley Carter alongside U19 Leinster and Ireland Schools lock Robin Copeland provide the power for a backline including Leinster trialists in skipper and out-half David Brennan, centre Gary Rynhart and utility back Nevil Copeland.
They will need to be at their physical best against one of the most imposing sides in the competition. Led by representative prop Ciaran Egan (son of Tullamore stalwart 'Timber') and with eight back from last year Roscrea will not lack for physical strength. Egan is one of five provincial players in the squad with Giles Boland (Leinster), Niall Harney, Andrew Sherry and Joe Moran (all Connacht) lining out in the inter-provincial championship.
In the final game at Lakelands, Gonzaga take on Wesley, one of the four qualifiers from Section B. With Bobby Byrne back on board alongside Declan Fassbender rugby at the Ranelagh Road school is in pretty good nick. Regular league finalists now at junior and senior level, another tilt at sister college Belvedere is well within their grasp.
Led by Donagh O'Shea the side includes seven back from last year when Belvo were pushed to the pin of their collective collar (13-8) to squeeze through to the semi-final.
Leinster and Ireland U19 prop James Gethings is the lynchpin but he is well supported by locks Daniel O'Sullivan and Sam Hodgins and by back-rowers O'Shea and James Moriarty. Following a successful summer tour to New Zealand, where they won four of the five matches played, Wesley field a relatively young but fast developing side. Squeezed out of the league play-offs, despite remaining unbeaten at home, they will certainly be up for it against highly fancied Gonzaga.
On Tuesday it's the battle of the Saints when traditional powerhouse St Mary's get the 2006 assault underway against relative minnows St Gerard's at Donnybrook.
Having lost the bulk of last year's pack it is a developing St Mary's side but given the shape of the draw they will be targeting another trip to Lansdowne Road as the minimal objective.
Crucially the spine of the side is strong with loose-head Darren Kennedy, No 8 and hugely influential skipper Kevin Gallivan, halves Matthew Conway and Neil Cowhey plus centre Jack Buggy back from last year. In addition to Kennedy, Gallivan, Cowhey and Buggy backs Nick Cunningham and Jack Ardagh plus hooker Shane Timmons, lock Joe Slowey and flanker Pádraig Lalor have been involved in the provincial squad.
Following an admitted over emphasis upon forward domination last season it is a return to the more balanced and traditional St Mary's way which spells trouble for all would be opponents. First up it's Gerard's, the smallest school, in the competition but one where commitment to rugby is at least the equal to any other.
The loss of out-half and captain Kyle Tonetti in the opening league game of the season has proved a major obstacle but qualification for the league semi-final (incorporating Section C cup status) plus Tonetti's likely return provides sufficient incentive to believe in a repeat of last season's Donnybrook performance.
The bulk of last year's cup semi-final squad is still on board with Jason Kinsella, Michael Rosenstock, Nick Kruseman, Andy Whelan and Burschi Wojnar the key performers up front. And with Tonetti back in situ the backline is from scrum half Simon Campbell (despite the considerable loss of Emlyn Lynch) to full back Cailbhe Doherty essentially one and the same unit.
Doherty and Wojnar represented Leinster at under 18 and 19 respectively with Wojnar also lining out for the Ireland A Schools against the visiting Australians.
On the same day at Templeville Road, the Clongowes class of 2006 finally declares its hand. Adam Lewis picks from a physically powerful squad of 40 and, although only five return from last year, they are liberally sprinkled throughout.
Props Conor Spelman and Ben Barclay, lock Eamon Mahony, back-rower Michael Kavanagh, scrum half Jamie Nagle, powerful wing Kyle O'Brien and full back David Kearney (brother of Rob) have all been involved with Leinster - Barclay, Kearney and Nagle receiving provincial caps.
As ever they will be extremely competitive at the breakdown but this time there is the added string of a powerful driving presence with ball in hand. This Clongowes side uses its bulk courtesy of the pick and drive to telling effect.
And they will need to for up against them will be a Kings Hospital squad with history and tradition in that particular facet very much on its side.
Former Wesley Schools' international Ray McIlreavy oversees a KH squad with 14 back from last year but over half of whom are in Form 5. Leinster Schools 'A' player Richard Wallace skippers a side that includes provincial trialists in James Brady, Brendan White, Robert Evans, Sam Murphy, Luke Feighery and talented wing Charles Coyle.
Another with sport in the blood is utility back Sean Treacy son of Olympic Silver medallist and twice World Cross Country Champion, John. Like Wesley, the Palmerstown school will be looking to a strong first round performance as a springboard to a first Vinnie Murray Cup success.
On Wednesday at Donnybrook Castleknock and CBC come head to head. 'Knock enter this year's competition on the back of three disappointing seasons given the talented JCT squad of 2002.
There is no reason why the
senior class of '06 can not
emulate that of '72.
But there are key members of that squad still available chiefly Brian Collins and Tom Walsh, captain and vice captain of this year's senior side respectively. Under Jim Lowry they have a mean and competitive look about them.
Walsh is a forward who leads very much from the front while Collins is potentially the most influential playmaker in the competition.
Put simply, and injury permitting, the fundamental pieces appear in place for an extended run in this campaign. At a glance St Mary's, St Michael's and Clongowes appear the obvious schools in the upper half but if you want a cool and calculated consideration for an outside run then 'Knock could be the one.
On the downside Adrian Toolan, who played at full back in the last two competitions, has been ruled out with a torn cruciate ligament.
However, with the bulk of last year's squad still around and with representative players in Collins, Walsh and Ruaidhri Murphy 'Knock could justifiably be deemed the dark horse in this year's draw.
Such talk will of course be grist to the mill out Monkstown way. The Vinnie Murray Cup specialists have but six back from last year however under Pat Fox and Gerry Berry they have been coming good of late.
Skipper and Leinster U19 forward Paul Grannell is the star turn and catalyst to the side. Grannell, Brian Clarke, Conor O'Rallaighaigh, Cian Coburn, Robert Kohls and John McGann are the experienced six with out-half McGann (son of Barry) a definite chip off the old block.
Also included in the squad is Cormac Spillane son of Mick and nephew of Pat, great Kerry footballers both. All of that Munster spirit and more will be required in what is sure to be a no holds barred clash with 'Knock.
Last but not least on Thursday at Donnybrook it's the turn of the holders to hit the road in an all black and white clash with Newbridge College. Cup semi-finalists in '04 Newbridge finished third to League finalists Roscrea and Gonzaga in their group before losing narrowly to Pres Bray (7-8) for automatic qualification to Section C of this year's competition.
Dave Brew's squad includes seven back from last year with five - loose-head Barry Conlan, hooker Gareth O'Reilly, lock Billy O'Shea, flanker Andrew O'Hara and left wing Shane Mangan included in the Leinster shake up.
Already through to the Vinnie Murray Cup semi-final the Section B trophy will be this year's priority but not before giving a good account of themselves against what is unquestionably multi talented opposition in the shape of Belvedere.
Belvo' carry an unusual but welcome burden in to this year's competition.
Back in '72 they carried the tag of title holders with ease completing back to back Senior cup successes in what was perhaps the golden era of rugby in the school.
Given the strength in depth of this season's squad allied to last season's junior cup success - an unprecedented double for the school - there is no reason why the senior class of '06 can not emulate that of '72. Twenty-two of last years senior panel, including ten of the Lansdowne Road cup final squad, are back on board to launch the title defence now. In addition four of last year's successful JCT - skipper Conor Colclough, Nermin Lovic, Luke Mangan and Michael Keating - are already very much in the senior shake up.
Leinster and Ireland U19 scrum-half Paul O'Donohoe leads a side that includes Leinster representative players in hooker Paul Devitt, props Cian Healy and Paddy McCabe, No 8 Conor McGinn, full back Colin Murphy, utility back David Mongan, and centre Eoin O'Malley as well as trialists in out-half Martin Dufficy, lock Cathal Pendred and flanker David Synnott. Healy and Devitt like O'Donohoe have made the Ireland U19 schools squad.
The extent of the challenge facing Newbridge in the opening round needs precious little elaboration.
Victory for the holders should set up a repeat of last season's all Jesuit quarter-final against up and coming Gonzaga (victory over Wesley allowing) while 'Rock and Roscrea will be favoured to come through against 'Nure and Kilkenny respectively.
In the top half St Mary's appear the obvious choice for another Lansdowne semi-final run out but 'Gerards, CBC and a particularly menacing 'Knock outfit will all be harbouring similar aspirations.
Traditional big guns St Michael's and Clongowes will be expected to advance at the expense of Pres and KH with Michael's the hot tip to make it through but rest assured much of the theory will go out the window when the Setanta cameras begin to role.
All pre-competition signs point to 'Rock and Belvo' leading the way but given their grouping together in the bottom half of the draw it provides a massive St Patrick's Day incentive for those at the opposite end.
And suffice to say that whoever gets the better of 'Rock or Belvo' come March 17 will have earned the right to declare themselves worthy champions.
Take the ultimate winner to come from the better of the big two when they eventually clash at the penultimate stage but beware St Michael's . . .