12 Dec, 14:42
Prop Cian Healy is expected to miss the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations after undergoing surgery on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
There's a general feeling round Thomond Park way that last Saturday's 42-13 thumping of former leaders UCD may have paved the way for greater things for Mick Galwey's second-placed Shannon side. Whether that's the case, it certainly looks set up for their fifth win of the campaign, against the off-form Braidmen.
Galwey was on the field the last time the Limerick men visited Eaton Park in the league, losing 14-13 two years ago. Even if a Steph Nel-led Ballymena are coming off the back of four losses in their last six outings and possess the league's worst defence, Galwey knows enough to be wary.
Especially following on from their last trip north when Harlequins erased Shannon's 18-point lead with 19 second-half points before Christmas.
Pacesetters Clontarf have been in impressive form at Castle Avenue so far this season - 32-19 winners over both Dungannon and Garryowen - and third-from-bottom Blackrock will have to come out of a slump to edge them on Saturday.
Minus coach Phil Werahiko, the north Dubliners were fortunate to edge Dublin University 14-11 last time out, with South African substitute Dan van Zyl stroking over an injury time penalty winner, but having notched eight tries and 64 points in their two home games, Tarf should net a third.
Buccaneers' play-off hopes were dented by Connacht rivals Galwegians - 20-17 two weeks ago - nevertheless the return of back row legend and club captain Eoin Tayto' Brennan from a long term foot injury and home advantage should be enough for a vital win against a third-ranked Garryowen.
Interestingly, the Limerick men have only won once against Buccs, but possess a talented backline in which centre Ray Niland has notched four tries.
Last four possibles Belfast Harlequins and UCD - who lost their unbeaten record to Shannon - face away trips to Lansdowne and Galwegians, with Quins surely the league's form side. The Deramore Park outfit, who will lose coach Andre Bester to Rotherham at the end of the season, have won four from four - scoring 12 tries, three of which from right wing Paul McKenzie - in moving into contention in fourth, and should account for Lansdowne at headquarters.
Sunday sees UCD travel to Wegians' Crowley Park, with the home side still basking in the glory of their double defeats of Buccs and Cork Con. Bernie Kelly's men will test the students but visiting fly-half Eoghan Hickey (89 points) should spearhead a UCD win.
Elsewhere, last season's runners-up Constitution - without a win in over a month - head to Dublin University in desperate need of the points, lying in tenth. And it could well be the battle of the old and new generation of number 10s at Oak Park, as County Carlow's Richie Murphy - a veteran of Greystones and Clontarf - duels with Dungannon and Ireland Under-21 star Gareth Steenson. The Tyrone men, up to seventh after two wins from three, should prevail.
In Division Two, a top-of-the-table clash dominates the weekend with leaders Dolphin taking on second-placed St.Mary's College in Cork.
With two points separating each club, a win for St. Mary's is vital if they are to maintain their challenge. Third-ranked De La Salle could also move up the table if they account for second-from-bottom Highfield in Kilternan.
UL Bohemians will take on Old Belevedere in a repeat of the game that effectivley lost the title and promotion for the Dubliners last year.
In Division Three, run-away leaders Greystones have scored the most points (280) and the most tries (36) across all three divisions. They will take on Limerick side Bruff who will be hoping to give themselves some breathing space from the bottom sides in the table, where they lie in fourteenth.
Second-placed Clonakility, who are eight points adrift of the leaders, will play Queen's University in Cork. Bottom side Portadown, without a win so far, also take on mid-table Skerries.
AIB League Fixtures: January 22nd-23rd (kick-off 2.30pm, unless stated)
Ballymena v Shannon, Eaton Park Buccaneers v Garryowen, Dubarry Park Clontarf v Blackrock College, Castle Avenue County Carlow v Dungannon, Oak Park Dublin University v Cork Constitution, College Park Galwegians v UCD, Crowley Park (Sunday 23rd) Lansdowne v Belfast Harlequins, Lansdowne Road
Ballynahinch v Thomond, Ballymacarn Park Bective Rangers v Barnhall, Donnybrook DLSP v Highfield, Kilternan Dolphin v St. Mary's College, Musgrave Park Midleton v Malone, Towns Park Old Belvedere v UL Bohemian, Anglesea Road Old Crescent v Waterpark, Rosbrien Young Munster v UCC, Tom Clifford Park
Banbridge v Connemara, Rifle Park Bruff v Greystones, Kilballyowen Park City of Derry v Suttonians, Judges Road Clonakilty v Queen's University, Shannonvale Cross Corinthians v Sundays Well, Corinthian Park Instonians v Ards, Shaw's Bridge Portadown v Skerries, Chambers Park Wanderers v Old Wesley, Lansdowne Road (Sunday 23rd)