The rugby World Cup may be on the minds of many supporters. At grassroots level in Ulster, pre season preparations are ongoing with league action commencing on Sat 29th August 2015 in the Ulster Championship league and Sections One and two of the Qualifying leagues. Changes have been made to the UCL with the ten competing teams split into two leagues of five. Changes to the second XV league will see the introduction of two conference leagues. This includes two second XV teams along with the ten Qualifying One teams to make up Conference league One. In Conference league Two - four second XV teams along with the ten Qualifying two teams. The remaining four AIL second XV teams will be included in Junior One.
Changes to the Ulster Bank All Ireland league will see play offs introduced to a restructured five ten team league. The top four in Div 1 A will play off for the league title. The winners of Div 1B, Div 2A, Div 2B and Div 2C will be automatically promoted with the team finishing 10th relegated. The team finishing 9th will face a play off against the teams finishing 2 - 4 in the league below them. The four Provincial Qualifying league winners will play in the All Ireland Provincial League Championship with the winner automatically promoted to Div 2C. The 9th place team in Div 2 C will have a play off against the runner up in the All Ireland Provincial league Championship to decide which team will play in Div 2C.
With no Ulster AIL team in Div 2C only one team will be relegated from Qualifying One and Two this season. Both Ards and Instonians were relegated from the Ulster Bank All Ireland League in consecutive seasons - with Instonians and Clogher Valley failing to secure a place in the All Ireland league through the play offs.
Ulster's ten Ulster Bank AIL league teams will look to improve on last seasons performances. Ballynahinch remain the number one team in Ulster lifting both the UCL league title and the First Trust Senior Cup. They narrowly missed out on securing one of the top four play off places in Div 1 A. In Div 1 B Ballymena and Belfast Harlequins will be aiming for a top four play off place. In Div 2 A Banbridge will one of the favourites for an automatic promotion place. Both relegated Malone and Queens Uni will be looking a mid table placing as they rebuild this season. In Div 2 B relegated Rainey OB, Dungannon and City of Derry will be joined by promoted Armagh. Both Armagh and City of Derry will be hoping to make the play offs with Rainey and Dungannon looking a mid table finish.
In Ulster we have two of the most competitive Qualifying leagues with little to choose between the teams in these two ten team leagues. In Qualifying One Instonians will be favourites to retain their league title. Bangor, Clogher Valley and Omagh will provide stiff opposition as teams challenge for a top four placing and qualification for the Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup. In Qualifying league Two Carrickfergus will be favourites for promotion with Coleraine, Enniskillen and Ballymoney their main challengers.
The off season is a period of activity in clubs when we witness player movements with clubs appointing their coaching and management teams. Ulster AIL clubs continue to experience difficulty in recruiting players with many players choosing to play their rugby in the Qualifying leagues. AIL rugby provides few opportunities for Ulster clubs and players to compete for silverware each season whereas Qualifying rugby in Ulster enables teams and players to contest the Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup, Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup, Powerade Towns Cup and the McCrea Cup.
What changes have we witnessed during the off season.
Ulster AIL Clubs
Head coach : Alex McCloy, Assistant coach Willy Faloon, Rugby Consultant Brian McLaughlin
Players in: Jonny Pollock ( Banbridge), Matthew Hooks, Daryl Morton (Queens Uni), Philip Matthews ( RS Armagh).
Players out: Seamus Mallon, Mark Riddell and Philip Fletcher ( Dungannon), Manihera Eden ( NZ)
Head coach: Andrew Graham, Assistant coaches: Nicky Wells, Bryan Young and John Nicholl.Captain Willy McKay.
Alan O'Connor, Ross Kane, Kieran Joyce, Bronson Ross, John Creighton (Malone), Michael Shiels and Paddy McGowan (Rainey OB), Jack Owens (Queens), Rodger McBurney (Ballynahinch), Chris Allen ( Randalstown), Andrew McGrath and Joseph Thompson ( Ballymena Academy)
Adam Smith ( Ballymoney)
Head coach: Derek Suffern, Assistant coaches: David Dougherty, Charlie McAleese. D o R Ronnie Duncan.
Players in: Sam Windsor, Paul Rowley and Peter Browne ( Ulster rugby), David Busby, Zac McCall, Lorcan Dow, Conor Spence, Justin Rea (Queens Uni), Conor Joyce (Malone), Will Stewart ( Belfast Harlequins), David Weir and Ian Weir ( Banbridge), Stuart Evans (Lisburn. Manihera Eden ( Armagh).
Players out: Rodger McBurney ( Ballymena), Charlie Butterworth and Ross Adair ( Jersey), Jonny Davis and Peter Weir (Lisburn).
Head Coach: Daniel Soper, Assistant coach: Simon Best. DoR Andy Duke, Captain Jonny Graham.
Lee Steenson and Fraser Mulholland ( Dromore), Michael Bentley ( Dundalk), Robert Logan (Belfast Harlequins).
Players out: Harry Cleland ( Instonians), Davy and Jonny Weir ( Ballynahinch), Jonny Pollock ( Armagh), Colin Bickerstaff ( Retired).
Head coach: Adam Larkin. Assistant coaches: Ali Heatlie and Andrew Gillespie. DoR D C Gillespie.Captain: Neil McComb
Players in: Jacob Stockdale, Conor Young and Mark Foster ( Queens), Timothy Emerson ( Rainey OB), Paul Jackson, Ben Alexander, Peter Nelson and Lewis Stevenson ( Malone).
Players out: Josh Fullerton (Queens Uni), Tom Fraser ( Lisburn), Michael Heaney ( Doncaster), Michael Allen (Edinburgh), William Stewart ( Ballynahinch), Stephen Gilliland ( Instonians), Robert Logan ( Banbridge).
City of Derry
Technical Director of Coaching: Terry McMaster. Head coach: To be appointed. Assistant coaches: Jason Mitchell (Forwards), Richard McCarter, Strength and Conditioning Joe Gallanagh.
Players in: Neil and John Burns ( Malone), Neil Brown and Ali Beckett ( Omagh), Steven Dickey ( Coleraine), Angus Warwicker and Rory Squires ( Rainey OB), Ger Collins ( Bruff)
Players out: Josh Lewis ( Instonians), Peter Henderson( Australia).
Head coach: Andrew Hughes. Assistant coach: Seamus Mallon. Captain: James McMahon.
Players in: Ben Matchett (UUC), Peter Lamb and Ryan Purvis (Portadown), Mark Riddell and Philip Fletcher ( Armagh).Paul Armstrong and Willy Stafford (Clogher Valley).
Players out: Jack Milligan (Queens Uni), Mark O'Shea ( Enniskillen Dual Status), James Bates ( Clogher Valley- Dual Status).
Head coach: Jarrett Truscott. Assistant coaches: Paddy Armstrong ( Forwards), Mark Taylor (Backs). Strength/Conditioning+ Physiotherapist Conor Farrell. Managers 1st XV: Roy Sherman and George Martin.
Players in: Peter Ireland (Lisburn), Matthew Doak (Queens), Mark O'Connor (Rainey OB), Max Porter (Ards), Bruce Duff (Ards) and David Halliday.
Players out: Andrew Black (Dromore), Neil Burns and John Burns ( City of Derry), Simon Baillie, David Irvine, David Cobain, Chris Rowan, Ali Coulson (CIYMS), Ben Alexander ( Belfast Harlequins), Ross Kane, Kieran Joyce, Alan O'Connor, John Creighton, Bronson Ross ( Ballymena), Lee McClure ( Portadown), David Creighton (Queens), Michael Ferguson ( Bangor), Conor Joyce (Ballynahinch), Hugo Harbinson (Banbridge), Paul Jackson ( Belfast Harlequins), Thomas Burns ( NZ). Peter Nelson and Louis Stevenson (Belfast Harlequins).
Head coach: Bob Young. Assistant coach: David Creighton (Backs).
Players in : Paddy Farrell ( Returning after year out), Josh Fullerton ( Belfast Harlequins), Ryan Cunningham ( Seapoint), Mark Gordon and Jonny Crowe ( Rainey OB), Paddy Marks (Instonians), Jack Milligan ( Dungannon), Stewart Martin (Academy).
Players out: Justin Rea, Conor Spence, Zac McCall, Lorcan Dow, David Busby (Ballynahinch), Conor Young, Jacob Stockdale, Mark Foster (Belfast Harlequins), Jack Owens (Ballymena), Jonny Milliken (England), Ryan Clarke and Eoin Devlin ( USA), Stuart Hooks (N/K), Sean O'Hagan (England), John Russell and Sam Russell ( Dromore), Luke Steel and Rory Winters ( Rainey OB), Matthew Doak (Malone), Craig Burton (Bangor), Daryl Morton and Matthew Hooks ( Armagh).
Head coach: John Andrews. Assistant coach: Luke Marshall.
Players in: Michael Wilson (CIYMS), Rory Winters and Luke Steel (Queens Uni), Damien McMurray( Returning from Uni), Bernard Mullen ( Belfast Harlequins). JoshMcIlroy ( Ballymena Academy).
Players out: Rory Squires and Andrew Warwicker (City of Derry), Ross McCloskey (Bangor), Mark O'Connor (Malone), Michael Shiels and Paddy McGowan (Ballymena), Conor Simpson, Cameron Fulton, Allen Clarke (Coleraine), Mark Gordon and Jonny Crowe (Queens Uni), Timothy Emerson (Belfast Harlequins). Michael Nevin ( Instonians).
Qualifying league One
Head coach: David Irwin. Assistant coaches Scott Young, Roy Lawton and Graeme Taylor.
Players in: Peter Graham ( Lisburn), Jonny Harris and Taylor Nutt ( Regent House), Nathan Graham ( Belfast Metropolitan College). Ten players will move up from the Under 18 squad including Paddy Bond, Joel De Pledge and Ben Orr.
Players out: Ali Coulson, Max Porter and Bruce Duff ( Malone), William Dodds, Adrian Dodds, David Dodds, Trevor Jordan, George Shaw and Joel Adams ( Cooke).
Head coach: Jason Morgan. Assistant coaches Michael Ferguson ( Forwards), Ryan Meeke and Jamie Foulkes. 1st XV Managers: Ricky Armstrong and Mark Vance. Captain 1st XV Jamie Clegg.
Players in: Michael Ferguson ( Malone), Darren Kelly ( Returning from Uni), Richard Corbett ( Returns after work sabbatical), David Bradford ( Doncaster Knights), Jake Harriosn and James Henley ( NZ), Ross McCloskey ( Rainey OB), Robert Gamble ( Bangor Grammar), Craig Burton (Queens).
Ricky Armstrong and Jason Morgan (Retired).
Head coach: Mike McKeever. Assistant coaches: Kris James (Backs), Darren Best (Forwards). 1st XV Manager Stephen Crawford. Captain: Gary Weatherup.
Players in: Mike McKeever ( Ballymena), Gary Clotworthy ( Grosvenor).
Players out: Graeme McKinstry ( Scotland), Andrew Wylie ( Australia).
Key players making a welcome return to the club include Niall Lawther, Stewart Cusick, Jonny Reid, Gary Clotworthy and Mo Finlay.
Head coach: Gareth Fry. Assistant coaches John Anderson (Backs), Davy Scott (Forwards).
Captain Mark McConkey.
Players in: Stevie McReynolds and Colin McKinty ( Larne), Simon Baillie, David Irvine, David Cobain, Ali Coulson, Chris Rowan (Malone). Paddy Morrow and Nathan Burns (Uni). Signed several players from Campbell College and Sullivan Upper including Casmir Yandall, Adam Walmsley and Cori Hamill.
Players out: Sam Baker ( NZ), Michael Wilson ( Rainey OB), Matthew Armstrong and Mark Scott ( England).
Head coach: Glen Kyle. Assistant coach Davy Black ( Forwards). Captain David Sharkey.
Players in: Jonny Foster ( Enniskillen), Neil Henderson, Gareth Crawford and Matthew Monteith. James Bates ( Dual Status - Dungannon).
Players out: Paul Armstrong and Willy Stafford ( Dungannon).
Head coach: Colin Atkinson. Assistant coach: Rowan Frost.
Players in: William Dodds, Adrian Dodds, Adrian Dodds, Trevor Jordan, George Shaw, Joel Adams ( Ards), Alan Gourlay and Andrew Barr ( Coleraine), Chris Hunter ( Limavady), Niall Brown ( UUC), Aaron Seawright ( Returned from long term injury). Seven school leavers from Wellington College including Captain Sam Bridge.
Players out: Graham Jewhurst ( Retired).
Head coach : JonnyCullen. Assistant coaches: Michael Harshaw, Robert Greer and De Wet Bekker. Strength and Conditioning coach Tom Finn.
Players in: John Russell and Sam Russell ( Queens Uni), Andrew Black ( Malone ), Jonny Cullen ( Carrickfergus), Scott Nelson ( Banbridge), Richard McKelvey (Ballynahinch), T J Morris ( RBAI), Eight players have moved up from Under 18 squad including Ryan Hughes - Ulster Clubs Under 18 Captain and talented out half AdamMcDonald.
Players out: Lee Steenson and Fraser Mulholland ( Banbridge).
Head coach: William Leacock. Assistant coaches Mark McDowell and Keith Crossan.
Players in: Josh Lewis ( City of Derry), Michael Nevin ( Rainey OB), Stephen Gilliland ( Belfast Harlequins), Harry Cleland ( Banbridge), Including schoolboys : Lewis McNamara, Mark Mairs, Andrew McGregor, Garett Bell, Ryan McComisky ( RBAI), James Houston ( Sullivan).
Players out : Conor Brocklehurst ( SA), Sebastian Folla ( Italy), Patrick Marks( Queens), Andrew McKeen and David McKeen ( Carrickfergus).
Head coach : Philip Marshall. Assistant coaches Adrian Hamilton, Ashley Blair, Mark Neill, James Kane. Captain Andrew Ferguson.
Players in: John Blair ( Strabane) plus several players returning from Uni and overseas.
Players out: Ali Beckett and Neil Brown ( City of Derry).
Head coach: Richard Hedley. Assistant coaches Ciaran O' Kane, Mark Neilly, Shane Johnston and Darren Thompson. Strength and Conditioning: Mal Allister. Manager 1st XV Neil Irwin. Captain 1st XV James Carleton.
Players in: Lee McClure ( Malone), Mal Allister, Mark Adamson, Craig Woods ( NZ), Rodney Blair ( Dungannon). Jonny McClure ( Clogher Valley).
Players out: Ryan Purvis and Peter Lamb ( Dungannon),
Head coach: Gareth Lynn. Assistant coach: George Saunders. Captain Chris Cooper.
Players in: Simon Beattie ( Grosvenor), Taylor Gillespie ( Instonians), Danny Laird (Queens), Ben Cathcart and Scott McLean ( Randalstown), Chris McCarey (after season sabbatical), Andrew and Gavin Harper returning after injury. 10/15 players from BRA.
Players out: James Blair ( Ballymoney), Stewart Martin ( Queens Uni).William Martin ( Retiring).
Head coach: James Carson. Assistant coaches: Richard Beggs and Chris Cochrane
Players in: James Blair ( Academy), Adam Smith ( Ballymena), James Blakely and Andrew Wisener ( Coleraine Inst), Scott Malcolmson and Aaron Sparks ( Dalriada), James Cleland and John Richmond ( returning from Sabbatical), Jonny Hanna and John McFetridge (returning from injury). Twelve players have moved up from the Under 18 squad to play Adult rugby.
Players out: Nil
Head coach: Neil Hanna. Assistant coache: Aaron McKinney.
Players in: Andrew and David McKeen( Instonians). Twelve players have moved up from Under 18 squad to play adult rugby with several players joining from Carrick Grammer school. Players to watch out include Jake Porter former Captain Carrick Grammar and talented out half Sam Wallace who has come through from the Under 18 team. 19 year old back row forward Matthew Fisher a product of the clubs successful Youth structure has joined Ulster Sub Academy and moved to Belfast Harlequins.
Players out: Jonny Cullen ( Dromore).
Head coach: Richard Boyd. Assistant coaches Stephen Douglas ( Forwards), David Andrews (Backs). 1st XV Manager Gareth Bell. Captain Andrew Neely.
Players in: Cameron Fulton, Conor Simpson and Allen Clarke ( Rainey).
Players out: Steven Dickey ( City of Derry), Alan Gourlay and Andrew Barr ( Cooke).
Head coach: Graham Cloke. Assistant coach John West. Strength and conditioning coach Paddy McGratton. DoR Chris Good.
layers in: Thomas Scullion ( Regent House), Jack Cooke ( Uni), Adam Lowry (uni), David Kirkpatrick, John Quigg, Blair Savage ( Uni).
Players out: Alastair Lockhart ( Australia), Thomas Slane and Ryan Irvine ( Uni - England), Paul McKenzie ( Retired), Andrew Findlater ( England).
Head coach: Norman Richmond. Assistant coaches: Ashley Finlay ( Backs), Stevie Welsh ( Forwards coach), 1st XV Manager John Courtney. Captain Alan Wilkinson.
Players in: Mark O'Shea ( Dual Status - Dungannon).
Players out: Patrick McCleery ( France), Robert Connor ( Uni Scotland).
Head coach: Alasdair McKee. Assistant coach: Alain Douglas.
Players in: returning players include Andrew Kelly, Philip Stoops, David Egner, Sam Purdon, Pearce Jamison, Matthew Cahoon, DBO Bowden, Neil Adams and Lloyd Hannigan.
Players out: Gary Clotworthy.
Head coach: David Wilson. Assistant coach Ryan Milligan, Stevie Marshall. Strength and conditioning coach: Gareth Kennedy. Captain Ryan Garrett.
Players in: Head coach looking to under 19 players Luke Barefoot, Graig Gibson, Joe Johnston, Philip Andrews and Jordan Burns to step up this season and become key players on the 1st XV.
Players out: Stevie McReynolds and Colin McKinty ( CIYMS).
Head coach: Neil Hinds. Assistant coaches: Tom Fraser ( Forwards), Andrew Posthlewaite ( Backs). 1st XV Manager: Michael Knowles.
Players in: Peter Weir and Jonny Davis ( Ballynahinch), Tom Fraser ( Belfast Harlequins) and several players from Wallace Schools cup squad including Conor Guiney. Also several ex Wallace players returning from Uni.
Players out: Peter Ireland ( Malone), Stuart Evans ( Ballynahinch), Peter Graham ( Ards).
Head coach: Gary Longwell. Assistant coach Alastair Strange.
Players in: School leavers and players moving up from Under 18 squad.
Players out: Chris Allen ( Ballymena), Ben Cathcart and Scott McLean (Academy).
Observations from talking to thirty clubs in UCL, Q 1 and 2. Clubs with successful Youth structures are benefiting from increasing numbers of players completing the transition to Adult rugby. It is also encouraging to see the working relationships between clubs and schools with increasing numbers of schoolboys continuing their playing career at their local rugby club.
One area that is causing concern in Schools, Youth structures and Clubs is the shortage of front row players coming through into Adult rugby. This is area that needs to be addressed by clubs and the Ulster Branch to secure the future of the 15 a side game.
Finally to wish all the clubs every success for the season 2015/16 season.