THE 89th edition of the Provincial Towns Cup, sponsored by Cleaning Contractors, gets under way across 13 different venues throughout Leinster on Sunday as 29 teams go in pursuit of the venerable old trophy.
In the Leinster League, Ashbourne are a mere point away from securing the Division 1B title after they beat second-placed Monkstown 20-13 away in Sydney Parade last Sunday.
Wanderers won 16-11 away in Mill Road against Dundalk as they seek to win all their Division 1A games, a feat not achieved in the top Division in more than 20 years, while Cill Dara, Enniscorthy and Coolmine had big wins to ease away from the relegation zone.
Tullow are last on 19 points after they lost 26-16 away in Ross Road to Enniscorthy, Newbridge are in the relegation play-off spot on 21 points following a 20-10 home defeat at Rosetown against Coolmine, while Clondalkin, on 24 points, still have a bit to do after losing 9-3 in Beechpark to Cill Dara.
This year, the Provincial Towns Cup would appear to be the most wide open in years with no clear favourite and any one of maybe 10 teams entertaining genuine thoughts of April success.
The six Division 1A clubs, Dundalk, Cill Dara, Enniscorthy, Clondalkin, Newbridge and Tullow are the obvious contenders, while Division 1B leaders Ashbourne, Division 2A pacesetters, Gorey, and Metro League Division 2 leaders, Naas, have developed winning habits and with a favourable draw could go a long way.
Kilkenny, Longford and Wicklow are well capable of causing an upset or two, but have lacked consistency in the League, while Co Carlow, Roscrea and Boyne have shown good form over the past month or two to gain the respect of rivals.
Holders Tullamore are represented by their 2nd XV and they should open the defence of their hard won trophy with a home win at Spollanstown against their struggling neighbours Portarlington.
Those with an eye for an upset will look at Cill Dara's visit to Streamstown, where they will face a Roscrea side that made it to the semi-final stage a year ago and are always hard to beat in the close confines of their home patch.
Dundalk slipped up in the opening round a year ago in Gorey and will tread warily at the Showgrounds to take on Athy as they endeavour not to bow out as quickly for the second year in succession.
Division 3 side Arklow should have no chance against Clondalkin, but at home in the Oval and after a couple of good wins this month, they should at least prove to be stubborn opposition. Newbridge and Division 2B leaders, New Ross, must play at neutral Co Carlow, both clubs having incurred the wrath of the Branch, resulting in them having to play away from home – a factor that will add a degree of unpredictability to the tie.
There are four games featuring teams from the same division, Kilkenny v Longford, Gorey v Mullingar, Wexford Wanderers v Midland Warriors and Naas 2nd XV v Navan 2nd XV, and these all promise to be tight affairs.
A couple of games are hard to predict as there are no crossover references between Leinster and Metro Leagues, so it's hard to know exactly what might happen in Boyne 2nd XV v Portlaoise and Wicklow v Skerries 2nd XV, while most people would expect Tullow to beat North Kildare at home in Black Gates and Ashbourne to comfortably see off visitors Edenderry in Milltown House.
Three teams have received byes into the 2nd round; they are Co Carlow, Enniscorthy and Rathdrum.
When the draw was made, I said I fancied Dundalk, but with form having changed in the intervening month, I'm going to change my selection and go for Cill Dara as eventual winners.
The draw for the second round will be made in Ashbourne RFC immediately after the Ashbourne v Edenderry tie and will be broadcast live on LMFM Radio.