Campaign kicks off for Towns Cup glory
Dundalk visit Kilkenny as battle begins for 85th provincial crown
The 85th renewal of the Newstalk Provincial Towns Cup kicks off this weekend with proceedings getting under way tomorrow afternoon in Kilkenny when Dundalk are their visitors at 2.30pm.
Later that evening, under the lights in Mullingar, it's the turn of Ashbourne to lock horns with the Westmeath club, before the main body of action takes place on Sunday with a further 14 games down for decision.
Kilkenny and Dundalk appear high up on the Towns Cup winners' roll of honour with the Marble City club having recorded five outright successes compared to nine for the Co Louth standard-bearers.
Kilkenny's last success was in 2002 when, under the captaincy of Willie O'Mahony, they successfully defended the trophy by beating Co Carlow 33-13 in north Kildare.
That team was also completing a unique league and cup double, and featured a certain Ian Dowling on the wing -- a player who has since captured a pair of Heineken Cup medals with Munster and is currently in the Irish Six Nations squad.
Ger McDonald, who coached that extremely talented and successful two-in-a-row Cup- winning team, also played in their previous victory in 1986, on a side that included Irish prop forward and All-Ireland Senior Hurling medal winner Ned Byrne.
Ger is still at the helm on the sideline and, while Kilkenny are struggling near the basement area in Division 1B, they possess a combative pack where No8 John Phelan is a driving force.
They will also look to reliable fullback Killian Everard as they try to maintain a proud Towns Cup tradition in Foulkstown tomorrow.
Dundalk's last victory was back in 1987 when Robert Sheckleton led them to a 13-6 triumph in Longford over a Kilkenny side that included Ireland and Lions legend Willie Duggan.
Beaten semi-finalists a year ago, it's 23 years since that previous success and they've only been to one final since, which is a long, long time for a club of this stature.
They are enjoying a fruitful season in Division 1A, where they lie fourth, and their success is based on one of the strongest packs in the province led by veteran prop forward Kenny Dorian.
The talent gene isn't confined to the forward pool, however, as in out-half Gearóid McDonnell they possess one of the most precociously gifted young players in the competition, while fullback Stephen McGee is a proven match- winner in his own right.
Two other clubs with enviable winning records go head to head on Sunday when five-time winners Athy travel to Holmpatrick to take on Skerries, champions on no fewer than 11 occasions.
Co Carlow (who will be represented by their second XV) lead the roll of honour with 12 Towns Cup successes and they will be looking forward to welcoming Tullamore (champions four times, most recently in 2006) to Oak Park.
The Towns Cup has a reputation for producing tough and uncompromising rugby, and nowhere will that be more evident than in Tullow on Sunday when Division 2 runaway leaders Portarlington visit Black Gates.
A record 30 clubs are taking part in the Cup this year but only two will be left standing to participate in one of the biggest days on the Leinster club calendar, the Newstalk Provincial Towns Cup Final at the end of April.
Who will succeed Boyne as winners of the 85th Towns Cup? The race starts tomorrow.
Meanwhile, in Leinster League action, Division 1A leaders Seapoint scored six tries in demolishing bottom club Portlaoise 36-5 at home last Saturday to extend their lead over second-placed Boyne to six points with only three games remaining.
A late fourth try by Newbridge in beating Kilkenny 32-12 at home on Sunday also gave the Co Kildare pacesetters in Division 1B a precious extra-point advantage (their lead is now three points) over their nearest pursuers, Coolmine.
Division 2 appears to be all locked up as Portarlington won their 12th game from 12 attempts when they beat Roscrea 20-6 away to maintain their 13-point advantage over Ashbourne, who lie second.
Edenderry won a topsy-turvy affair 19-17 at Wexford Wanderers to open a five-point gap at the top of Division 3 Section 'A', while in Section 'B' Balbriggan lead by three points following their 11-3 home victory against Arklow.