Two new sides, along with the return of three other teams, will see a strengthening of Ireland’s domestic competition which kicks off next month.
In Northern Ireland the Belfast Eagles, who had previously been running only junior rugby league, have extended to include an open age side (playing out of the colourfully named Orangefields) to join the existing three Ulster teams and make a four-team championship. In Eire, the Galway Bay Pirates, dual registered with neighbours and current champions Galway Tribesmen to assist in their development, will make their debut playing friendlies in their inaugural season.
“There is a feeling of nostalgia and also progress for the upcoming season,” says Ulster provincial official, Steve Hogan. “Limerick’s finest, the Treaty City Titans return after a troubled 2016, which culminated in them standing down mid-season. They come back hoping for a return to former glories.
Also back are the Ballyfermont Bears from West Dublin, last seen in 2015, and the Waterford Vikings who return after a hiatus of several years. The Vikings are effectively a new setup, led now by current international winger, Alan McMahon who was part of the All Ireland winning Galway Tribesmen last year, and whose two solo efforts went a long way to securing the team their maiden title.”
Hogan continues, “Added to the eight-team competition in the Republic of Ireland, there has been an upsurge of 150 percent in competitive team numbers. Along with the Pirates, there may be further developments in the very near future in terms of additional non-competitive teams.
“Belief in Ireland is that the game is on the up, and with the Wolfhounds at the World Cup there is genuine excitement among all involved.”
Expansion comes on the back of the Ireland national team qualifying for the 2017 World Cup, with a squad that includes a number of domestically-based players.
Since obtaining full Sport Ireland recognition two years ago, RLI has been committed unequivocally to growing the sport’s appeal throughout its local stakeholders. A prime example of that strategy being the rule, introduced locally, stipulating that all national teams must have a sizeable quota of domestic players irrespective.
The governing body is also putting additional emphasis on the completion of more championship matches. Last year, the combined competitions saw 67% of all regular season fixtures completed, compared to only 56% in 2015. The collapse of Treaty City was the main reason for the bulk of walkover fixtures in 2016 but there is great belief that the 2017 season will be robust.
Underpinning it, the U19s of both Northern Ireland Elks and the Republic of Ireland Eagles have been active since January, as have the U16 Irish Wolfhounds. The first fixture took place recently at Ashbourne RFC between the ROI Eagles U19s and the West of England Lionhearts, with the visitors taking the game 36-32 in an enthralling encounter.