Let the bat­tle com­mence - it’s time for the Towns Cup

Bray People - - SPORT - SIMON NOR­TON

THE HEINEKEN CUP group stages have been con­cluded and the quar­ter-fi­nals are set in stone. Round 6 is al­ways a week­end of high drama and this year cer­tainly didn't dis­ap­point.

Con­nacht fin­ished up their re­spectable cam­paign with a hard earned vic­tory over Ze­bre in the Sports­ground. Eric El­wood will now con­cen­trate on mak­ing head way in the Pro 12 to try and en­sure a spot in next year's com­pe­ti­tion.

The early ar­rival of Pat Lam in April and the news that the flyer Fionn Carr is head­ing back west next sea­son (he should never have left) will buoy their spir­its for the re­main­der of the sea­son.

Ul­ster had al­ready qual­i­fied go­ing into last week­end so were fight­ing for the right to play at home in the next round.

Alas their first win on French soil over Cas­tres couldn't seal the deal as both Sara­cens and Toulon bran­dished su­pe­rior point's dif­fer­ences.

They now have to travel to Sar­ries in April but will take some so­lace that, should they over­come the English no­mads; they'll have a semi-fi­nal in the Aviva against ei­ther the Leicester Tigers or Toulon.

If they needed any ex­tra en­cour­age­ment they'll be up against a team that's helmed by their former cap­tain and coach, Mark McCall.

With Mont­pel­lier get­ting the win against what seemed like a fairly dis­in­ter­ested Toulon out­fit (with an alarm­ingly poor show­ing from Johnny Wilkin­son), it meant that only one of ei­ther Le­in­ster or Mun­ster could go through. This added some se­ri­ous spice to the al­ready eye wa­ter­ing en­coun­ters as the two ri­vals vied for the one re­main­ing run­ner up spot to ad­vance.

Le­in­ster did all that was asked of them in their fi­nal two group matches. Their bonus point win in Ex­eter on Satur­day was an im­mense feat when you con­sider the re­solve the premier­ship out­fit showed in the RDS ear­lier in the sea­son when Le­in­ster only scraped a home win.

The re­turn of the big three (Kear­ney, Fitzger­ald and BOD) seems to have given them a new lease of life with the back play really be­gin­ning to click.

By only scor­ing the bare four tries to se­cure the bonus point how­ever they put them­selves un­der se­ri­ous pres­sure. Mun­ster now only needed the bonus point win against Rac­ing Metro re­gard­less of try scor­ing ad­van­tages.

If the feat of get­ting four tries against a sec­ond string Rac­ing side in Thomond Park wasn't easy enough, the task was made sim­pler in the sixth minute with the Paris out­fit's blind­side wing for­ward An­toine Batut get­ting a straight red fol­low­ing a knee to Tommy O'Don­nell's head.

The de­bate will rage on as to whether it was de­served or not but Wayne Barnes was cer­tainly in no doubt as he reached to the pocket. Batut sulked off and with him went Le­in­ster's hopes of pro­gres­sion. Conor Mur­ray opened the flood gates with a try on the 24th minute and Simon Zebo poured through it with a hat-trick of tries, re­peat­ing his feat from last years fi­nal group match.

They will now travel to face Conor O'Shea's Har­lequins who have re­sisted the mon­e­tary temp­ta­tions of Twick­en­ham to stage the match at their much smaller home ground of the Stoop, thus negat­ing Mun­ster's fa­mous '16th man'.

Their fans have a habit of get­ting their hands on tick­ets though so don't be sur­prised to see a fair few pock­ets of red. Hopes of a fi­nal ap­pear­ance will have taken a bat­ter­ing with the news that a semi-fi­nal in fortress Cler­mont awaits the vic­tors (un­less Mont­pel­lier can cause a se­ri­ous up­set) but I very much doubt they're look­ing be­yond Quins' at this point.

Le­in­ster have to be con­tent with an Am­lin quar­ter-fi­nal away to Wasps. If there's any con­so­la­tion it's that the fi­nal will be in the RDS in May, and with the blues hit­ting some fine form of late I wouldn't bet against them clinch­ing a tro­phy of a dif­fer­ent kind this year.

Mean­while, this Sun­day will mark the start of the com­pe­ti­tion to claim one of the old­est tro­phies in Ir­ish rugby, namely the Le­in­ster Pro­vin­cial Towns Cup.

The sil­ver tro­phy came into com­mis­sion in 1892, although the ac­tual com­pe­ti­tion had been run­ning since 1889 un­der the guise of the Le­in­ster Ju­nior Chal­lenge Cup, won by Black­rock Col­lege on its in­au­gu­ral out­ing.

The first pro­vin­cial team to win the cup was Co. Car­low in 1904 and they went on to dom­i­nate for much of the tour­na­ments in­fancy with five wins un­der their belt by 1922 when En­nis­cor­thy took over then man­tle.

The com­pe­ti­tion changed to its cur­rent for­mat in 1926, in­tro­duc­ing the rule that el­i­gi­ble Ju­nior clubs had to be at least 18 miles from the Gen­eral Post Of­fice in O'Con­nell Street to be­come in­volved in the Pro­vin­cial Towns Cup.

From a County Wicklow point of view Rath­drum have got the tough­est first round as­sign­ment this year with a visit from the Di­vi­sion 1B lead­ers Tul­low un­der the tute­lage of Sean O'Brien.

The Car­low men have been in fine fet­tle of late and are all but crowned as win­ners of the league with an un­beaten record. Rath­drum are ly­ing near the bot­tom of Di­vi­sion 3 so it'll be a case of David ver­sus Go­liath at the Ivy Leaf Grounds on Sun­day.

Ark­low have been handed a far more real­is­tic tar­get as they wel­come fel­low Di­vi­sion 2B side Eden­derry to The Oval.

Ark­low cur­rently lie fourth in their league, just eight points be­hind the Of­faly men with a game in hand. This one could go ei­ther way with the sides so close but with home ad­van­tage you'd hope that Ark­low can nudge it.

Wicklow RFC have a tricky as­sign­ment away to the some­what un­known quan­tity of Sk­er­ries' J1's.

The north Dublin side are cur­rently sec­ond from bot­tom in their (long-winded) Metro J1 League - Sec­tion B (Phase 2) - Group 2 so don't seem to be hav­ing the best of sea­sons. Re­cent re­sults how­ever sug­gest some­thing of a resur­gence.

Wicklow on the other hand, hav­ing started the sea­son so well have had to con­tend with in­juries and the loss of play­ers in key po­si­tions of late.

Some of th­ese play­ers will re­turn this week, (in­clud­ing their in­flu­en­tial player/coach Niall Smullen), so Wicklow will be hop­ing for a big per­for­mance in Holm­patrick to march on to the sec­ond round and get their sea­son back on track.

This year's favourites would have to be the newly crowned 1A league cham­pi­ons Tul­lam­ore. The Of­faly men last won the cup in 2006 (over­com­ing Noel Greene's Wicklow in the fi­nal) and were beaten fi­nal­ists three years run­ning (2009-2011).

His­tory tells us though that the Towns Cup tends to leave form at the front gate. Don't bet against any­one lift­ing that his­toric tro­phy!

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