'Rock and Belvo are the teams to beat
While the winner of the clash between St Mary’s and Terenure will be the dark horses, it’s hard to look beyond Blackrock and Belvedere in this year’s campaign
For the best part of a decade I lived on Shannonside and in that time got a full education in what local rugby rivalry and tribal passion was all about. It is club-based and runs deep. When Limerick teams come head to head there is no place for the faint of heart. When I look back now I can honestly say I took it all in my stride, and for two good reasons. For one, I was a convert from senior soccer to senior rugby at the time; secondly, I had been brought up on a rugby relationship as intense as anything anywhere on this island.
It would be exaggerating to suggest the Mary's/Terenure rivalry begins in the cradle, but I'll tell you what: for me and for my generation, it wasn't long after. There is something special, something unique, something that lasts for life when you are fortunate enough to be part of this great south Dublin link between Holy Ghost (now Spiritan) and Carmelite schools.
Whether on the front field in Rathmines, Kenilworth Square or Terenure College itself, the rivalry was intense - and we're talking here from under-9 up. Between the white lines commitment was total but - and obviously I can only speak from a blue perspective - respect for purple, white and black was and is ingrained from the off and grows exponentially over the years.
So when messrs Heaslip, Sexton (how ironic) and Reid did the nasty when pulling St Mary's College and Terenure College out of the 'hat' (the Senior trophy itself) at the draw for all six cups back in early December in the House of Lords on College Green, there was a sharp intake of breath in that packed room.
You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife and in that moment the tie to open this year's eagerly awaited Bank of Ireland Senior competition was determined. So on Sunday next at Donnybrook (kick off 3.00pm) D6 and D6W will transfer to D4 in support of a very special and extremely healthy rivalry in which, save for those on the pitch, mutual respect is unconditional.
They will do so on the amazing 4G pitch, now a year and a bit on, that is Donnybrook Stadium. If only late, great Leinster Schools administrator Anne McInerney had been around to enjoy the fruits of IRFU and Leinster Branch investment. Nobody would have appreciated it more. It is a development worth its weight in gold.
On the basis of last year's first-round exits for both (Terenure to Blackrock and Mary's to St Michael's), the Rathmines school is probably marginal ante-post favourite. Mary's did take the pre-Christmas friendly by the kick of a ball but that will count for nothing come Sunday.
Mary's could and should have beaten 2015 pre-tournament favourites St Michael's in that opening round 12 months ago. It was a knock to the system from which the Ailesbury Road school never recovered, with Clongowes the main beneficiary when coming out on top in the quarter-final.
We're sitting on the fence on this one and suggesting whichever school gets it right on the day will reap the full reward. Next up on Monday at the same venue and same time it's another either/or encounter between League semi finalists St Gerard's and CBC. Gerard's took the League tie in Monkstown back in late September but this, too, is all about whichever team turns up in the better physical and mental nick at the appointed hour. On Tuesday St Andrew's (the other beaten League semi-finalists) will need to hit the ground running against near neighbours St Michael's.
The Booterstown school were bitterly disappointed with their showing against Kilkenny at the penultimate stage of the League. Expect a big improvement this time out and watch for a particularly class act in centre and captain Jordan Larmour. Against that is a Michael's squad the polar opposite of a year ago, coming into Round 1 right under the radar. They should prove too strong for Larmour and company and if they can avoid Blackrock or Belvedere in the quarter-final, anything is possible. Watch them.
On Wednesday it's a double header with another strong Newbridge College squad (last year's beaten semi finalists) and Belvedere (Junior Cup runners up in 2013 and 2014) coming head to head at Donnybrook. Meanwhile, at Portarlington, RFC Kilkenny College and defending champions Cistercian College meet in a repeat of the pre-Christmas League Final. Kilkenny have been hugely impressive in the knock-out stages of the League and, much like Newbridge, will push the more highly fancied opposition right to the wire. That said, anything but a Belvo-Roscrea double will be a surprise.
Thursday sees last year's Vinnie Murray Cup winners King's Hospital take on the schools juggernaut that is now Clongowes. Yet again this year the Clane school come into the main event with little known as to cup-winning potential. True to tradition, Brett Igoe has played it close and clever and should have enough to prevail.
Meanwhile, at Lakelands (Terenure RFC) Gonzaga (beaten League quarter-finalists) will take on the second finalist from the Vinnie Murray Cup. All available evidence points to this being the much more difficult tie, given the lopsided nature of the shadow competition draw whereby Skerries CC, CUS, St Fintan's Sutton and Wesley College (the four strongest teams) have been lumped together in the bottom half. Whoever emerges, Gonzaga will be pushed all the way.
Then on this day week in the final tie of Round 1, the second of the heavyweight favourites Blackrock College unveil their wares for 2016 against the other Vinnie Murray Cup finalist and qualifier. That is most likely to be Castleknock College, although Wilson's Hospital in particular will have something to say about that.
'Knock, as Vinnie Murray qualifiers in 2015, were unlucky to come up against a Clongowes side firing on all cylinders 12 months ago and suffered badly on the scoreboard on the back of it. The fear, given the even more formidable opposition this time around, is for a repeat of the same. Whatever else, this new artificial pitch is totally unforgiving. We hope we are way off beam here, but this is a potentially lopsided tie with a very ominous look about it.
Beyond that it is difficult to predict, given the nature of the rolling draw (now in situ for the third year running) but if 'Rock and Belvo can avoid an early clash then each is justifiable favourite to go the whole way.
After that watch for Michael's, Roscrea (on the assumption they overcome Kilkenny) and the winner of Mary's/'Nure as potential dark horses. But on the evidence this season, 'Rock and Belvo are the two to beat.