Leinster will begin their quest for a fourth successive Interprovincial Championship at Athenry on Wednesday.
The three-in-a-row champions have three members of last year’s winning side to call on for their title defence.
South of Ireland champion Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk) returns to the fold along with Eugene Smith (Laytown & Bettystown) and Jonathan Yates (Naas).
AIG Irish Close champion Robbie Cannon, who won his third major championship at The European Club earlier this month, has earned a well-deserved call-up, as has West of Ireland winner Robert Brazill (Naas).
Brazill is one of four players to make his debut this year. Charlie Denvir (Elm Park), Alan Fahy (Dun Laoghaire) and Robert Moran (Castle) will also get their first taste of the men’s interprovincial championship in Athenry.
Leinster’s template has yielded three successive victories, all overseen by team captain Seamus McParland (Greenore), who holds the reins again in 2018.
“We won’t let it go easily,” said McParland ahead of this year’s title defence. “I think that our team is solid and I expect the other teams to be strong too.”
With four new caps in the team, Leinster will need their latest recruits to hit the ground running. At 39, Robbie Cannon provides plenty of experience. He made his interprovincial debut in 2001 and he’s the man in form after his win at the AIG Irish Close.
Cannon is one of several players pushing for an Ireland cap at the Home Internationals, and as the Interprovincial Championship represents the last chance for players to state their case, there is more than just provincial glory at stake this week.
As hosts, Connacht will be hopeful of winning the title for the first time since 2011. And with four Galway players in their side, they will feel right at home in Athenry.
“It’s nice to be playing in familiar surroundings,” says Connacht captain Diarmuid Caulfield. “We have a tight-knit group of players. The lads are very familiar with each other because they get to represent Connacht more often together.”
Caulfield has four of last year’s team to call on in 2018: Sean Flanagan (Co Sligo), TJ Ford (Co Sligo), Jack McDonald (Forrest Little) and Ronan Mullarney (Galway). Galway’s Joe Lyons, an interpro veteran at this stage having debuted in 2005, returns to the fold as does Castle international Alex Gleeson, who last played for Connacht in 2013.
Athenry pair David Kitt and Allan Hill are the two rookies in the Connacht side but they have the comfort of playing at home.
“It would be lovely to get a win in Athenry,” says Caulfield. “Leinster are getting a bit like the Dublin football team – we’re all trying to beat them.”
Ulster last won the championship in 2013 at Lee Valley but they were second behind Leinster at Carlow last year. Tiarnan McLarnon’s recent win at the Mullingar Scratch Cup is a timely boost for team captain Shane Magee (Lurgan).
“I was delighted to see Tiarnan winning in Mullingar,” said Magee. “He’s a good leader for our team.”
McLarnon’s leadership will be needed, especially with three newcomers in the team. Peter Kerr (Royal Portrush), Marc McKinstry (Cairndhu) and Rory Williamson (Holywood) will make their interprovincial debut in Athenry. Kerr and McKinstry were previously capped at boys level for Ireland.
Ulster have four members of last year’s side for the trip to Athenry. In addition to McLarnon, Reece Black (Hilton Templepatrick), Ross Dutton (Tandragee) and Marc Norton (Belvoir Park) are back in the fold. Malone’s Matthew McClean, who previously played for Ulster in the 2014 Interprovincial Championship at The Island, completes the Ulster line-up.
“We’ll be a tough team to beat,” says team captain Magee. “This is a great chance for players to prove themselves to the Ireland selectors. It is a great week’s golf. You play six games in three days. You have to be mentally tough to do well.”
Michael Coote (Tralee) is in his first year as captain of Munster and although he had to plan without Robin Dawson (Tramore) and John Murphy (Kinsale), who are preparing for the World Amateur Team Championship, his team is not short on experience.
Cork’s Gary O’Flaherty is the longest-serving player at interprovincial level, having made his debut with Munster as far back as 1996, while Peter O’Keeffe (Douglas) first played in 2002. Since returning to the amateur ranks O’Keeffe has climbed inside the world’s top 100.
Munster have retained six members from last year’s side. In addition to O’Flaherty and O’Keeffe, Eanna Griffin (Waterford), Geoff Lenehan (Portmarnock), Andrew McCormack (Limerick) and James Sugrue return while Kinsale’s Cathal Butler and Cork’s John Hickey have been added.
“I’m delighted with the team that we have,” says Coote. “Leinster are the team to beat but at this championship, it’s all on the day.”
Coote will be targeting the foursomes for points and momentum.
“It’s vital to get ahead in the foursomes,” Coote maintains. “A good start in the foursomes sets you up for a good run.”
Play begins in Athenry with the first foursomes session at 8 am on Wednesday 29 August. Hosts Connacht are up against reigning champions Leinster in the opening match of the championship with Munster facing Ulster.
Interprovincial Matches, Athenry
- Leinster: Robert Brazill (Naas), Robbie Cannon (Balbriggan), Alan Fahy (Dun Laoghaire), Robert Moran (Castle), Mark Power (Kilkenny), Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk), Eugene Smith (Laytown & Bettystown), Jonathan Yates (Naas).
- Connacht: Alex Gleeson (Castle), Sean Flanagan (County Sligo), TJ Ford (Co. Sligo), Allan Hill (Athenry), David Kitt (Athenry), Joe Lyons (Galway), Jack McDonnell (Forrest Little ), Ronan Mullarney (Galway).
- Munster: Cathal Butler (Kinsale), Eanna Griffin (Waterford), John Hickey (Cork), Geoff Lenehan (Portmarnock), Andrew McCormack (Castletroy), Gary O’Flaherty (Cork), Peter O’Keeffe (Douglas), James Sugrue (Mallow).
- Ulster: Reece Black (Lisburn), Ross Dutton (Tandragee), Peter Kerr (Royal Portrush), Matt McClean (Malone), Marc McKinstry (Cairndhu), Tiarnan McLarnon (Massereene), Marc Norton (Belvoir Park), Rory Williamson (Holywood).