All eyes on Rathdown on Saturday as once again the title will be settled at the Glenageary venue with a match between Monkstown and Glenanne.
While many seasons proclaim the chase for the ultimate crown as the tightest ever only for a late season run to settle the matter with games to go, this year’s Leinster division one race has set up an epic, winner takes all conclusion.
Twelve months ago, Glenanne’s task was the same, needing a win to hold off the outside challenge of YMCA. This time round, the Town are likely to put up more of a fight as they spy a first league win in 30 years to go with their recent collection of domestic cups.
Getting to this point has been quite the battle for both with Pembroke, YMCA and Railway at times threatening to upset the apple-cart.
Indeed, the Glens comeback from virtual write-offs at Christmas with seven points to make-up and Joe Brennan out for the rest of the campaign, they looked set to be the first to formally step out.
But co-player coaches Graham Shaw and Paul Fitzpatrick have galvanised the side, Eddie O’Malley going on a brilliant run of scoring form while Jonathan Kane has got a career-best tally of 13 senior goals to his name.
It has allowed the Glens to keep pace despite not having a clearly defined corner expert with Fitzpatrick banging home a few switches and their variation routine working overdrive.
With Brennan unavailable and Shane O’Donoghue since departed, it was a necessary change but one that has worked to decent effect.
At times, they have ridden their luck, notably against Three Rock when they appeared to have been pegged back to draw 2-2 while Rob Whelan’s strike was en route to goal for YMCA last week for a leveller before the whistle pulled it back for a corner.
Nonetheless, the luck quotient worked against them as UCD nabbed a freak goal in the last seconds to tie that one up at 3-3. Their key result, though, was a comfortable 3-1 win over Pembroke which really announced themselves from the pack, the upshot of which has left them a point off first going into round 18 and in search of a sixth title in 12 years.
The Town, though, look very much the side with the aces this season. With a full team, few could match them in the first half of the campaign but international and injury issues dragged them back into the pack after a scratchy second half of the season.
Gareth Watkins, David and Stephen Cole, Richard Sykes, Dave Fitzgerald, Kyle Good and Gavin O’Halloran all spent time out of action for a number of reasons, seeing their four-point mid-season lead evaporate.
The delay in playing their refix against Pembroke worked well in their favour as David Cole and elder brother Stephen both bounced back from six-week lay-offs to be able to play a part.
Mark Ingram’s mid-season arrival has also been a big factor as Fingal and … put the teenage goalkeeper’s mettle to the test, coming out in flying colours.
Glenanne’s experience of the big stage could be the critical factor but Monkstown, needing just a point, will have a vocal crowd in tow on the hill.
But the bulls will be highly motivated as only a win can give them any sort of lifeline in the battle to avoid the drop for the first time.
Gareth Borland’s side could do with the likes of Rob Abbott – 18 goals this term – and Richie Forrest still in navy as both have played big roles for Railway, going on the longest unbeaten run of any side this term.
It has pushed Ian Keeffe’s side to their highest finish in the division in over 20 years and they welcome back his son Stephen between the posts after a brief spell in Africa as part of his studies.
English brothers Peter and Mark and a fair smattering of wonder goals from Eoin MacArthur and Jeremy Duncan have provided one of the hardest working sides in the division with a rare cutting edge to be the division’s top scorers.
Tarf have made the breakthrough to win their first division one game in their fourth campaign in the top tier. Their approach has been on the more pragmatic side, sitting at half-court and regularly frustrating opposition, but it has not gleaned enough to leave them needing more than a minor miracle.
A win at Park Avenue needs to go with UCD going pointless against a Three Rock Rovers’ side who capitulated against Railway last time out and have striking issues with Peter Blakeney and Ross Canning both likely to be out.
Should the results work out for Clontarf, it would still leave them with in a playoff game with UCD for the right to play in the promotion/relegation playoff game.
The Belfielders, though, will have the slight concern of having not won a single point away from the National Stadium and while this is down as a home game, the game has been switched to St Andrew’s as the IHA have booked the stadium for the Irish Hockey Challenge finals.
They will be buoyed by their large contingent being included in the Leinster U-21 selection including Conor Quinn, a former Rovers’ man, who will be vying with opposite number Stephen West for the number one jersey.
YMCA are hopeful that Railway can falter and a result against Pembroke could offer them hope of fourth rather than resorting to the wildcard playoff.
The Y were fancied by many to be the side to push on this season and be real title challengers but their campaign has been blighted by long-term injuries. National and provincial representatives Iain Walker, Andy Walker and David Robinson along with Dash Hewett and Allan Dale have all missed a number of games to stunt their progress.
It has left them shy at times but they face a Pembroke side also short the services of Alan Sothern while Timmy Hill, Alan Giles and Patrick Good might sit out Saturday in favour of aiding fitness for Sunday’s Mills Cup final.
Corinthian play Fingal in the other game with a nominal tussle for sixth, seventh and eighth to be played. Davy Carson could be out with a torn tendon.
Sunday’s Mills final may have something of a grudge-match feel to it as Pembroke will aim for revenge for last Sunday’s late turnaround at the drag-flicking stick of Richard Sykes.
A repeat of the high quality encounter would certainly provide a great spectacle for the Sunday crowd.
In division two, little remains to be settled with Avoca confirmed as champions last week with Suttonians now assured of the playoff spot.
Mullingar will hope to finish their division two campaign with a bang but they are unlikely to want to stay in the league after a tough year which yielded just one win.
Their move up from division four coincided with a number of players emigrating or moving on, making the task a tough one and they hope that a move back down will help coax a few more players back into the fold.
** All matches, including Sunday’s Mills final, will hold collections for the Friends of Chris Pelow fund.
Men’s Leinster Division One: Monkstown vs Glenanne, 2pm, Rathdown; Corinthian vs Fingal, 2pm, Whitechurch Park; YMCA vs Pembroke Wanderers, 2pm, Alexandra College; Railway Union vs Clontarf, 2pm, Park Avenue; UCD vs Three Rock Rovers, 2pm, St Andrews College
Division Two: Mullingar vs Suttonians, 2pm, North Kildare; Weston vs Avoca, 2pm, Griffeen Park; Rathgar vs Portrane, 2pm, High School
Mills Cup final (Sunday): Pembroke Wanderers vs Monkstown, 2pm, Grange Road
Neville Davin Cup, semi-final (Thursday): Weston v Portrane, 7.30pm, Griffeen Valley Park
Irish Hockey Challenge final: Kilkenny vs Ballynahinch, 3.30pm