Clongowes holding tight grip on crown
Smart money on champions, says tony ward
If a Junior Cup-winning squad from three years ago represents a pretty solid starting platform for any Senior Cup assault, then the maturing of Clongowes' all-conquering unit of 2008 sees the Clane school well placed for a vibrant title defence and perhaps, back-to-back successes for the first time in the purple and white's history.
The Clongowes' class of 2011 has all the attributes to go the whole way for the second year running.
Twelve months ago we wondered if they were quite ready. The answer to that was presented in the most emphatic style at the RDS on March 17 when they swept 2010 pre-competition favourites St Michael's aside. It was ruthlessly clinical Clongowes rugby at its intensive, all-enveloping best.
The 2010 model was every bit as complete as the steamrolling winners of '98, who featured Des Dillon and Gordon D'Arcy in their line-up.
The bigger the demand, the better they played. So, with seven senior medal winners in the likely starting XV, the reigning champions represent the level to which every other school must aspire in 2011.
However, if they are to go the distance again, then they are going to have to do it the hard way.
The draw (made in early December by a trio of Leinster stars including Clongowes' own Rob Kearney) has not been kind. They will kick into action against Qualifier 3, most likely Pres Bray, although a particularly strong Section A McMullen Cup-winning Newpark side will have something to say about that.
The winners will advance to play either Blackrock or Newbridge in the quarter-final, with the classic 'Rock v Clongowes match-up the hot call.
Below that, St Mary's (pipped by Clongowes in last year's semi-final) will meet Kilkenny in a tie with danger written all over for the Holy Ghost school. And the winners of this will progress to a quarter-final clash where the survivors of Belvedere v St Michael's awaits.
These two ties, along with Terenure and Gonzaga at the other end of the draw, look the most competitive and mouth-watering at the moment.
History and tradition suggests 'Rock, Clongowes, Mary's and Michael's to make it through to the last eight at the bottom end.
Meanwhile, at the top end, it is every bit as difficult, as the gap between Section B (mid-ranking) and Section C (the Premier six or seven) grows closer, helped by the excellent Fr Noel Redmond-run Leinster Schools (Section B) League.
Much like Clongowes' cup-winning squad of a year ago the same question can be asked of Padraig Forde's Terenure squad this time round.
Junior Cup winners in 2009 and 2010, the nucleus is clearly there for a Senior title assault but is it perhaps a year too early?
At face value the draw is kind with most of the traditional big guns battling it out at the opposite end, making the 'Nure obvious favourites for the final at least.
But dig a little deeper and it is nowhere near as clear-cut as it seems. Gonzaga will take the Donnybrook pitch on February 3 with both the self-belief and wherewithal to put the 'Nure challenge to rest for another year. It is an on-the-day game which could so easily go either way. If the Gonzaga mindset is right, then don't rule out an upset.
Castleknock remain something of an unknown quantity given their absence from the Senior League, whereas Roscrea (Junior League winners in '08) have the experience and pedigree to give the Chapelizod school a major test at North Kildare on February 2. Here again it could swing either way.
So too for St Gerard's, beaten semi-finalists last year. Whether it is CBC or a more than useful CUS who come through a section that includes High School and St Andrew's in the Vinnie Murray Cup, an intense battle is guaranteed.
Though not as strong in depth as last year, this is a Gerard's squad well capable of making the semi-finals at least.
King's Hospital will most likely meet Wesley College in the remaining opening-round fixture and here the Palmerstown school will be fancied to qualify.
The bottom line sees Clongowes defending last year's hard-won title in a competition which, while appearing a tad lopsided, is in reality anything but.
All that said, if one tie is destined to provide a clear indication as to this year's likely winner it is, in a sense, the most obvious, when 'Rock (on the assumption they overcome Newbridge) and Clongowes (likewise against Pres or Newpark) front up at Donnybrook in the last eight.
Take the winner of that to be in pole position from there. This is a resilient hard-driving 'Rock side with a typical Williamstown work ethic.
That said, the smart money at this distance is on Clongowes. They are a balanced side with a powerful pack but one that plays a vibrant brand of inclusive rugby.
A rocky road to the RDS stretches ahead but if they play to form then it is the reigning champions they have all to beat. Take Clongowes to make it back-to-back triumphs.
Irish Independent Supplement