The Bankies: Those who reaped the rewards from the Ulster Bank League this season

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

The Bankies: Those who reaped the rewards from the Ulster Bank League this season

Released from the Munster Academy last summer, his talismanic form suggests he deserves another shot at the pro game.

The 22-year-old out-half, who amassed 200 points over the campaign, is a beautiful striker of the ball, his place-kicking exploits coming to the fore in the league play-offs where he kicked 14 points in the semi-final win at Lansdowne and 20 in a man-of-the-match performance against Clontarf last Sunday.

The left-footed Quinlan has dovetailed well with either John Poland or Jason Higgins at half-back, taking the right option more often than not - knowing when to allow the forwards to dictate and put the squeeze on, or unleash captain Niall Kenneally and the outside backs.

TEAM(S) OF THE YEAR

It is really difficult to separate the divisional champions here. Cork Con did win all four competitions they entered, but we’ve gone lower down the league to have Buccaneers (Division 1B) and Greystones (Division 2B) share this honour.

Brett Wilkinson’s Pirates and Kevin Lewis’ ‘Stones play an attractive, attack-minded brand of rugby and were deservedly rewarded for this with title-winning runs and promotion. Between them over the 18 rounds, they scored an eye-watering 1180 points and 20 try-scoring bonus points.

Underpinned by two hard-nosed packs, they also benefited from the performances of two jet-heeled wingers.

The finishing skills of Buccaneers’ Jordan Conroy, a current Ireland Sevens international, and Greystones’ Jack Keating were a joy to watch, the pair finishing with 18 and 19 league tries respectively.

Connacht’s Jordan Conroy. Picture: Inpho
Connacht’s Jordan Conroy. Picture: Inpho

COACH(ES) OF THE YEAR

Again we’ve had to select two winners here - Alan Kingsley from Division 2C champions Navan and Alex McCoy whose Armagh side secured promotion from Division 2B via the play-offs.

It has been a stellar season for Navan with their seniors gaining their first league promotion and the U20s also breaking new ground as Fraser McMullen Cup champions.

Navan finished with the best defensive record across the league, leaking an average of just under 13 points per game. The future is certainly bright at Balreask Old with Portlaoise man Kingsley at the helm.

McCloy’s second season in charge of Armagh saw them run Greystones very close in a fascinating 2B title race. They put that disappointment behind them to earn promotion in the play-offs, adding to their historic Ulster Premiership success.

A former head of analysis at Ulster Rugby, the Ballymena native has a squad that should settle in well in Division 2A.

RECOVERY OF THE YEAR

There have been a few notable escapes this year, clubs turning a corner after the Christmas break and the likes of Terenure College and City of Derry rebounding superbly to avoid the relegation play-offs by a single point. But Dolphin, who survived in Division 1B via the play-off route, take our award.

David Corkery laid the foundations for a solid campaign for the Corkmen but, struggling for results, they were bottom of the table in mid-February.

Step forward Chris Rowe and Barry Keeshan who took over the coaching reins, their epic rescue mission including six wins in a row, including play-off triumphs over Malone and Nenagh Ormond.

Assistant coach Keeshan continues to wield a huge influence on the pitch for Dolphin. Providing a guiding hand from out-half, he finished the regular season with 106 points and kicked 18 more in the two play-off games. Form is temporary, class permanent.

YOU SAY GOODBYE, I SAY HELLO

If ever a day summed up the emotional rollercoaster that is the Ulster Bank League, it was Saturday, April 29. The day Boyne, originally promoted in 2011, bowed out of the league, and Ulster’s resurgence was confirmed with three northern clubs - Armagh, Rainey Old Boys and Omagh - all gaining promotion.

It is disappointing to lose Boyne and Kanturk, two clubs who have added a lot of colour and passion to the league in recent years, but Malahide and Omagh, their replacements from the junior ranks, are Division 2C’s new residents and will be determined to hold onto their new-found senior status.

While leading Ulster sides Ballynahinch and Ballymena have struggled to make their mark in the higher divisions of late, Banbridge’s brilliant Division 2A title win, allied to the promotion of the aforementioned trio, shows the level of ambition in clubhouses north of the border.

ONES TO WATCH

A number of teenage players have caught the eye across the five divisions, gaining valuable senior experience.

These include multi-talented Young Munster out-half Alan Tynan, who helped the Cookies reach the play-offs again, promising props Jack McIntosh (Rainey) and Kuba Wojtkowicz (Sligo), Garryowen centre, David McCarthy, who impressed recently for the Ireland U19s, and athletic flanker Conor O’Brien from Sunday’s Well.

Young Munster’s Alan Tynan. Picture: Sportsfile
Young Munster’s Alan Tynan. Picture: Sportsfile

BOWING OUT

2016/17 marked the final season for a number of passionate clubmen who have given great service to the league. Very much topping that list is Midleton lock Aidan McCarthy who retired after an incredible 19 years of All-Ireland League rugby.

Former Ireland Sevens international Cian Aherne, who won top flight titles with Lansdowne in 2013 and 2015, also hung up his boots with promotion-chasing UL Bohs.

FROM VILLAINS TO HEROES?

The one big hope for next year is the IRFU’s All-Ireland League committee pay proper respect to the clubs competing in the play-offs.

Holding the Division 1A semi-finals and promotion/relegation play-offs on the same weekend as the British & Irish Cup final and Champions Cup semi-finals was absolutely ridiculous when the club game is struggling for crowd numbers and media attention.

Trying out club/ province double headers at the likes of Thomond Park and the RDS would also help.

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