The stars may all be aligning. The All Stars certainly are.
During Covid, Colin O’Reilly, the league’s outstanding player of this millennium, returned to his old club as player-coach, 20 years after parting ways with it, somewhat acrimoniously too, to take in everywhere from Connecticut and Chesire to Germany and Iceland, Killarney, and Killorglin, and most notably The Mardyke Arena crosstown where he’d inspire arch rivals UCC Demons to multiple national honours (four Cups, three Superleagues, and three Champions Trophies, to be precise). The decision to let bygones be bygones and Demons be Neptunes again was immediately justified: while O’Reilly, at 38, was maybe not the athlete or player of old, he demonstrated there’s still hardly a player or coach with his smarts around, leading Neptune to the finals of both the cup and the Superleague, only for them to be foiled on each occasion by Garvey’s Tralee Warriors.
This season to go one better they’ve gone and got one even better. Jordan Blount is another exceptional talent who has played extensively overseas at both club and international level for close to a decade, only he’s returning to his alma mater while still in his 20s, a bit like the O’Reilly that linked up with his brother Niall and Shane Coughlan for Demons in his and their pomp. While Templeogue’s Lorcan Murphy has being the Irish league’s own human highlight film for the past half-decade, Blount with his charisma, size, and skills will please and wow crowds in a way few Irish players ever have and present match-up challenges and nightmares for opposing coaches hardly any other Irish player has. At 6’7'' he’s too strong for almost all guards, then too agile and skilful on the perimeter for most bigs. He could be the first 20 and 10 a game Irish player the league has ever had.
Throw in the experience and wisdom the league’s reigning young player of the year Cian Heaphy would have garnered from training and playing with the national team this past summer, Roy Downey at the point, and this is a team and club geared to win it all.
There are other Cork clubs with serious ambitions this season. UCC Blue Demons are back after three years away from the top flight. Emporium Cork, the artists formerly known as Ballincollig, will be the savvier as well as extra-determined from last season’s experience of being the league’s Phoenix Suns: the frontrunners all year, only to fall short in the conference playoffs.
But there just seems to be something about Neptune.
It’s precisely 40 years ago since the club similarly loaded up to win their first-ever league title, snapping up Pat Quirke and Lennie McMillian from Demons a year after Tom Wilkinson made a similar crosstown move – but 20 years (the 2002-2003 season) since the club last won one. Nobody has won more titles – with 11, they’re still three ahead of Demons – but nobody is overdue or more desperate to win one, either.
When Neptune won that last league of theirs back in 2003, their coronation took place in the small, intimate school gym in Glasnevin, as Kenny Gamble & Co overwhelmed a St Vincent’s team who had little to nothing else to play for on the last day of that season: again, being a model of consistency, they had finished in the top three without again winning the title itself.
A few years later though, Vincent’s relocated and rebranded, linking up with DCU a mile or two up the road. It made sense: playing in one of the finest facilities in the country and becoming one of the first clubs to link up with a third-level institution, a legacy that remains today with five of the 14 teams in this year’s Superleague being sponsored and supported by a college.
Vincent’s though are no longer one of those. They are no longer DCU Saints. Instead they’ve returned to their roots and that old St Vincent’s school gym, the nursery that produced the Boylans, Donnellys, and McGurks. Somewhere along the way, even before Joey Boylan finally stopped calling the shots on the sideline at Superleague level, they seemed to lose their identity, and then their way; while no other club has finished in the top four more often, in recent seasons they were more acquainted with the bottom four of the league, and last season propped it up with a dismal 1-14 record.
This season the club seems regalvanised. Their three professional players all impressed in the pre-season. Charlie Coombes is back after a stint with DBS Éanna. While Joey is back leading their underage programme, Josko Srzic will have the clipboard in the Superleague team’s huddle, having held one for UCD Marian last season. They won’t be back winning or even contending for leagues but they’ll certainly get back to winning more games at least.
There’s little doubt about what was the biggest talking point and move this past offseason when it has come to the women’s Superleague. When player of the season Claire Melia moved to Trinity Meteors it not only naturally weakened the reigning league and cup champions but underlined the intent and ambition of Trinity Meteors. Three years ago they signed Edel Thornton to a scholarship upon her return from the US. Then when she returned to her home club of Brunel they filled that void with her dynamic international teammate Dayna Finn. And now by landing Melia, who has linked up so well with Finn through the years at both underage and senor international level, they have as potent a one-two tandem as there is in the league.
If there’s one team built to withstand a loss like Melia’s though it’s Glanmire. Mark Scannell is now 25 years coaching at Superleague level and throughout that time has constantly adapted to establish the winningest programme the domestic league has known during that time. Players may come and go but in Glanmire the winning invariably continues. They’ve Claire Rockall back, and later in the season may even see Orla O’Reilly back too should she decide to stay in Europe for sometime upon her return from Australia. Even if she doesn’t, her old club remain the team to beat. Nobody has their collective winning nous.
Meteors certainly do not have that proven resilience. Melia sustained a foot injury last week. It’s not yet known if it was only a scare or if she could be out for some time. If she is, you’d have to think then the biggest threat from Dublin to Glanmire’s supremacy will once again come in the guise of DCU, especially with Ciara Byrne now strengthening their backcourt, though it will be fascinating to see how Karl Kilbride, for so long the coach of Killester, will hit it off over in Liffey Celtics.
For the past few years, it’s been a league where everyone can beat everyone, but stopping a DCU or Glanmire from winning it all remains another thing entirely.
For all the criticism it rightly sometimes draws, few sports or NGBs have been as proactive and innovative on social media in recent years as Basketball Ireland and this season they’ve taken it to another level again with the advent of baskteballireland.tv, ensuring all Superleague games will be streamed to a quality standard. It’s a win-win for everyone: fans of the sport who can either pay on a game-by-game basis for an entire season for only €28; coaches who can now scout their opponents so much easier, but especially individual players, Irish or foreign, who hope to be seen or package their highlights to play professionally abroad.