Two new sides and the return of three other teams will see a strengthening of the domestic competition in Ireland in 2017, which kicks off next month.
In Northern Ireland Belfast Eagles, who have been solely running junior rugby league have now extended to include an open age side within their setup. They will join the existing three Ulster teams to make a four-team championship, whilst in the south, Galway Bay Pirates will make their debut.
The Pirates will play friendlies in their inaugural season and will be dual registered with neighbours and current champions Galway Tribesmen to assist in their development.
“There is a feeling of nostalgia and progress for the upcoming season,” says Ulster provincial official Steve Hogan. “Limerick’s finest, Treaty City Titans, return after a troubled 2016 season which culminated in the team standing down mid-season. They come back hoping to return to former glories and are joined by Ballyfermont Bears from West Dublin and Waterford Vikings.”
The Bears were last seen in 2015 whilst Waterford return after a hiatus of several years and are effectively new setup led by current international winger Alan McMahon. He was part of the All Ireland winning Galway Tribesmen last year and his two solo efforts went a long way to securing the team their maiden title.
Hogan continues: “The Eagles adult setup will play out of the colourfully named Orangefields. Added to the eight-team competition in the Republic of Ireland, there has been an upsurge of 150 percent in competitive team numbers and, along with the Pirates, there may be further developments in the very near future in terms of additional non-competitive teams.”
The governing body is 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 and 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.
Expansion comes on the back of the national team qualifying for the 2017 World Cup, their squad containing a number of domestically-based players.
Since obtaining full Sport Ireland recognition two years ago, RLI has 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 domestic quota of players irrespective.
Hogan adds: “Belief in Ireland is that the game is on the up and with the Wolfhounds at the World Cup, there is genuine excitement from all involved.”