Uphill battle for Terenure
Pretenders queueing up in all four provinces to knock champions
If predicting Senior Cup rugby can at times prove difficult, well the Junior equivalent is an even bigger nightmare.
Yet again, last year the title changed place of residence in all four provinces with Terenure, PBC, Calasanctius and Methody (MCB) succeeding Clongowes, Castletroy, Sligo and Inst (RBAI) respectively from the year before.
In Leinster it was Terenure back on top taking their first title at that level since 1989 by way of a nail-biting victory over a St Michael's side that seemed destined to bring the trophy back to Ailesbury Road following defeats in '07 and '08.
Significantly, both of last year's finalists are at opposite ends of the draw, but, if Michael's are to finally cross that line, they are going to have to do it the hard way. Beaten League finalists Kilkenny are first up and, if they come through this, it sets up the tie of the competition against Castleknock in the quarter-final (assuming 'Knock beat Gonzaga).
Even with traditional heavyweights Blackrock and Belvedere also in the top half, the survivor of Michael's/'Knock will be fancied to make the Donnybrook final at least.
In the bottom half, it looks like Terenure are the ones they all have to beat. They, too, face a difficult ride, though, in their title defence.
Neighbours St Mary's are first up, followed most probably by League winners Newbridge and then Clongowes at the penultimate stage.
Take one from Michael's, 'Knock and the 'Nure, but, equally, take my word predicting Junior Cup rugby is a mighty precarious business.
In Munster it also looks like one of the most difficult tournaments to call. Pres will be looking to defend their crown, but this time the challenge from the rest of the province -- and not just Leeside -- is substantial. All three Limerick City schools -- St Munchin's, Crescent and Ardscoil Ris -- field squads in with a real fighting chance.
North Circular Road school Ardscoil -- winners in '03 and '05 -- took the U-14 cup last year. There has since been a realignment in ages (now January 1), so last year's Limerick City U-15 Cup, which was won by Crescent (14-8 over Glenstal) was this season's U-16 competition. It actually produced the same finalists, with Cresent winning 22-10.
Add in new kids on the block Castletroy -- winners in 2008 -- as well as a competitive Glenstal squad -- and this year's Cork/Limerick rivalry will be hotter than ever. And no we're not forgetting the Tipp input.
With the Junior Cup now an U-16 competition, Rockwell College have the nucleus of last year's squad again. They will be formidable.
As at senior, the double-qualifying round system will operate, so mapping a course through this year's event seems futile. Suffice to say that whichever four make it through to the semis, will have earned the right.
In Connacht, too, there appears to be a measured re-alignment, but unfortunately for Junior champions of '08 Sligo Grammar and winners for the first time in'09 Calasanctius College, these two have been paired to meet in the opening round.
Already the two have made it through to the League final with the Oranmore school adding league to cup in an historic calendar year for Sean Grealish, Martin Breen and all at this fast developing Co Galway school. Just a single converted try separated them and all signs point to it being every bit as close again when next they meet in early February at Oranmore.
The winners could then face last year's runners-up, Summerhill College, in the first semi-final.
Lower in the draw the Bish (St Joseph's, Galway) and Garbally (St Joseph's, Ballinasloe) will lock horns. While Marist College (four times winners in the last decade) will look to celebrate this momentous year in Athlone with another fruitful run at the bottom end of the draw.
That said all evidence suggests the winner of the Oranmore showdown are the ones to beat.
In Ulster, the Medallion (junior) Shield, much like the senior equivalent, should see Methodist College, Belfast (Methody) and Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst). dominate.
The last seven titles this century have gone to one or other and while Campbell, Regent House and Ballymena Academy have all gone close, anything but another MCB or RBAI inscription on the Shield would be a major upturn particularly given the centenary incentive that's in it.