Highfield and Garryowen, two of the most ambitious clubs in Munster, will face off this afternoon at Woodleigh Park in a potentially explosive start to the inaugural Energia Community Series.
Had the Covid-19 pandemic not struck, Garryowen might have been kicking off the new season as defending Energia All-Ireland League champions, while Highfield — nine points clear in Division 1B with four rounds remaining — were cruelly denied the chance to join them in the top flight.
The IRFU have introduced the Community Series, containing provincial Conferences where the winners qualify for the Bateman Cup, Plate and Shield semi-finals, as a way for clubs to return to competitive action before a truncated All-Ireland League begins in January.
Garryowen had a home league semi-final in their sights last spring before the Coronavirus outbreak, but as proud holders of the Bateman Cup, their lineout and skills coach Mike Sherry is delighted that they have adapted to ‘new normal’.
“The way the season’s structured, it gives us a chance to really test the squad, give young players a chance, and you’re not straight into the thick of AIL action every single week.
“We’re an ambitious club, we want to build our squad and win every trophy that we compete for.”
Garryowen, Cork Constitution, and Young Munster head up the eight-team Munster Conference 1, and the Light Blues’ first round trip to Highfield has plenty of potential pitfalls, especially with the Cork side eager to impress Timmy Ryan’s successor as head coach, Conor Quaid.
“Highfield themselves were flying high last year,” noted Sherry, the former Munster and Ireland hooker. “I’m sure they’ll be licking their lips waiting to welcome us.
“That’s the beauty of the new structure, to get to play these games you wouldn’t normally play.”
Elsewhere, Cork Con will look to bounce back from their Munster Senior Cup exit when they host Old Crescent.
St Mary’s College versus Clontarf is the game of the day in Leinster, with Mary’s head coach Steve Hennessy joined by a new backs coach in Mark Sexton, brother of Leinster and Ireland star Johnny.
There are coaching debuts in Connacht for Kolo Kiripati — his Buccaneers entertain Sligo — and JP Walsh who brings his Ballina team to Galway Corinthians.
In Ulster, there is plenty of interest in Rainey Old Boys’ trip to City of Armagh with former Italy international Ian McKinley now coaching the Rainey backs.