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.
Every club has played 11 matches in Division One so far, with four weekends of action to follow in the regulation phase. Cork Constitution, Shannon, UL Bohemians and Clontarf are currently holding court in the top four play-off positions.
Meanwhile, with two teams automatically being relegated at the end of the season to Division Two, UCD and Galwegians are the sides under the most pressure at the foot of the table.
If clubs are equal on league points after 15 games, the more positive points' differential will be used to separate them. If clubs are still tied, the greater number of tries scored will determine the better-placed club.
Of the remaining four rounds, weekends 12 (March 3), 13 (March 24) and 14 (April 7) are Magners League weekends. The semi-finals date - Saturday, April 28 - also falls on a Magners League weekend. The date for the final - Saturday, May 5 - is also the date for this season's penultimate round of the Magners League. There are no clashes with the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
This is the tenth occasion that the season will end with top four play-offs to determine the AIB League champions. During this time, four defeats have been the maximum suffered by a club that has made it through to the semi-finals - the exceptions were Young Munster (2000/01) and Clontarf (2004/05), with both teams incurred five losses.
The bonus points system was first implemented during the 1999/2000 season and is now in its eighth season of operation.
DIVISION ONE SUMMARY:
New regulations this season will prevent clubs parachuting in provincially contracted players towards the end of the league run. Cork Constitution are seven points clear at the top of the table and have already played all the other clubs in the top six.
The three other play-off slots are up for grabs as Shannon, the reigning champions, have to play UL Bohemians and Clontarf, last year's beaten finalists, have to play both Garryowen and Dungannon.
Eight points separate the bottom five clubs, all of whom, with the exception of Dolphin, will have the opportunity to take points off each other in the coming weeks.
On the last four occasions that there were 16 clubs in Division One, the 14th placed club ended up with 24 points (2001), 26 points (2002) and 26 points (2003). Galwegians, being the exception, survived on 19 points last season.
FIXTURES TO COME:
Round 12 - Saturday, March 3
Round 13 - Saturday, March 24
Round 14 - Saturday, April 7
Round 15 - Saturday, April 21
Semi-Finals - Saturday, April 28 - Team that finishes first at home to fourth-placed club; Team that finishes second at home to third-placed club
Final - Saturday, May 5 - venue to be confirmed
1 - CORK CONSTITUTION
Points: 42; Wins: 9; Draw: 1; Losses: 1
Remaining Games: Buccaneers (away), UCD (away), Terenure College (home), Ballymena (home)
After two games away to clubs in the bottom three, Con will face two mid-table sides at home. They lost on their last AIB League visit to Buccaneers but beat them in Athlone in last season's AIB Cup semi-final.
They have lost their two previous fixtures at Belfield. Their last two matches could present difficulties but the Leesiders are not going to relinquish their unbeaten home record this season, especially if a home semi-final is up for grabs.
Forecast: They have, on paper, the handiest run-in. Con have reached the semi-finals in four of the last six seasons but have not won the title this century. They look like winners of the regulation league, at this stage, and odds-on for a home semi-final draw in the play-offs.
2 - SHANNON
Points: 35; Wins: 7; Draw: 1; Losses: 3
Remaining Games: UL Bohemians (away), Lansdowne (home), Blackrock College (away), Dolphin (home)
Shannon have, in reality, three 'home' games left to play in Limerick. Was their defeat by UL Bohemians earlier on this season in the Limerick Charity Cup final a one off?
They have never suffered an AIB League loss at home to Lansdowne and have won on five of their six visits to Stradbrook. It will be their third league game at home to Dolphin, with the Leesiders seeking their first victory.
Forecast: Now that we are at the business end of the season, one expects the eight-time title winners to roll up their sleeves and produce the goods again - just as they did against Dungannon last week (31-0). They are one of three clubs for whom an AIB League and Cup double is still on.
3 - UL BOHEMIANS
Points: 35; Wins: 7; Losses: 4
Remaining Games: Shannon (home), Dolphin (away), Galwegians (home), Blackrock College (away)
UL Bohemians have recently lodged a planning challenge so they just might be 'in situ' at Thomond Park for the next few months. They will find Shannon have cranked up the gears for their Limerick northside derby on March 3.
Dolphin may need some points but Galwegians should not be too interested. Bohs will take care of Blackrock if they can score 40 points!
Forecast: Despite a late run, Bohs did not make the play-offs last season. They will probably drop points against Shannon, and Dolphin away is a tough prospect, but they should finish the season with a flourish. Will 45 points be enough for a semi-final spot?
4 - CLONTARF
Points: 35; Wins: 7; Draw: 1; Losses: 3
Remaining Games: Ballymena (away), Terenure College (away), Garryowen (home), Dungannon (home)
Clontarf are the only non-Munster club in the top four at the moment. Last time at Ballymena they won for the first time in six visits. They have enjoyed good luck over the river at Lakelands Park.
'Tarf play other top four contenders in their last two games - both ties are at home where they have lost only once in their last eleven AIB League matches.
Forecast: The top Leinster club have made the play-offs in four of the last five seasons and have been beaten finalists on two occasions. Could dent the ambitions of Garryowen and Dungannon and so qualify for an away semi-final.
5 - DUNGANNON
Points: 32; Wins: 7; Losses: 4
Remaining Games: Blackrock College (home), Galwegians (away), St. Mary's College (home), Clontarf (away)
Dungannon are currently three points off a top four slot. They have to play three Leinster clubs in the run-in - they recently lost heavily to Shannon but the Parish club has always been their 'bogey' team.
They lost 40-3 to Galwegians at Crowley Park on January 13 in the AIB Cup but they travelled light on that occasion. 'Gannon have lost only once at home so far this season so should be able to take care of Blackrock and St. Mary's.
Forecast: Could turn out to the surprise packet this season. They have a very good home record and must take points away from Castle Avenue in their final outing to creep into the semi-final placings.
6 - GARRYOWEN
Points: 29; Wins: 6; Losses: 5
Remaining Games: Dolphin (away), Blackrock College (home), Clontarf (away), Galwegians (home)
Garryowen have been blowing hot and cold all season. They are currently six points off a play-off position. They should win their two home fixtures but will encounter fierce resistance at Musgrave Park and Castle Avenue where they have lost more games than they have won in previous league encounters.
Forecast: Currently have to claw back six points for a top four finish but cannot be discounted by any means. Despite what their coach Paul Cunningham says, they have been blowing hot and cold all season.
If they produce some consistency and other results go their way, do not be surprised if they end up with an away semi-final. They have reached the semis for the past two seasons and are one of three clubs in with a chance of claiming an AIB League and Cup double this season.
7 - BLACKROCK COLLEGE
Points: 27; Wins: 4; Losses: 7
Remaining Games: Dungannon (away), Garryowen (away), Shannon (home), UL Bohemians (home)
8 - TERENURE COLLEGE
Points: 26; Wins: 6; Losses: 5
Remaining Games: Galwegians (away), Clontarf (home), Cork Constitution (away), St. Mary's College (home)
9 - LANSDOWNE
Points: 25; Wins: 5; Draw: 1; Losses: 5
Remaining Games: Belfast Harlequins (home), Shannon (away), Dolphin (home), Buccaneers (home)
10 - GALWEGIANS
Points: 24; Wins: 3; Draws: 2; Losses: 6
Remaining Games: Terenure College (home), Dungannon (home), UL Bohemians (away), Garryowen (away)
11 - BALLYMENA
Points: 24; Wins: 4; Losses: 7
Remaining Games: Clontarf (home), St. Mary's College (away), Belfast Harlequins (home), Cork Constitution (away)
12 - DOLPHIN
Points: 23; Wins: 5; Losses: 6
Remaining Games: Garryowen (home), UL Bohemians (home), Lansdowne (away), Shannon (away)
Must face the three Limerick clubs - who are all currently in the top six - in their run-in. Dolphin could lose all three if they are not fired up. They lost on their only previous visit to Lansdowne but may have an urgent requirement for points on this occasion.
Forecast: Twice before, they have been promoted into Division One and been relegated at the end of the following season. Doubtful if that will happen again but they cannot afford to take any chance. Else, they will be straight back down to Division Two.
13 - ST. MARY'S COLLEGE
Points: 20; Wins: 4; Draw: 1; Losses: 6
Remaining Games: UCD (home), Ballymena (home), Dungannon (away), Terenure College (away)
Have never lost to UCD in four AIB League fixtures and have defeated Ballymena in all seven of their league meetings at Templeville Road. They trip to Dungannon is a difficult proposition for Mary's but not too hazardous as the trip across the parish to Lakelands Park, if a point or two is required for survival.
Forecast: The match against UCD is an eight-pointer. A minimum of one win and two bonus points will see Mary's safe - no matter what situation pertains, Terenure will take no prisoners on April 21.
14 - BUCCANEERS
Points: 17; Wins: 3; Draws: 2; Losses: 6
Remaining Games: Cork Constitution (home), Belfast Harlequins (away), UCD (home), Lansdowne (away)
Are due to play the two clubs currently in the relegation zone below them. Buccaneers have lost all three previous league games at home to UCD, while they have won once in two visits to Belfast to face Harlequins.
They have collected only one bonus point so far this season and have won only once on the road.
Forecast: Twice semi-finalists in the past four seasons, the Pirates are currently one point above the relegation zone. Now nine seasons in Division One, these next six weeks will be anxious ones down Dubarry Park way. They must beat either Harlequins or UCD to survive.
15 - UCD
Points: 16; Wins: 3; Draw: 1; Losses: 7
Remaining Games: St. Mary's College (away), Cork Constitution (home), Buccaneers (away), Belfast Harlequins (home)
Must play one club from each province in the run-in. UCD have lost their two previous AIB League games at home to Belfast Harlequins but have beaten Cork Constitution on their two appearances at Belfield.
Likewise, they have never had an AIB League victory at Templeville Road but College have returned with the laurels on all three previous trips to Buccaneers.
Forecast: After six seasons in Division One, UCD now have the threat of relegation hanging over their heads. They have a poor home record this season and must entertain Con and Harlequins in the run-in - they have three 'eight-pointers' left and must win two of them to survive.
16 - BELFAST HARLEQUINS
Points: 15; Wins: 3; Losses: 8
Remaining Games: Lansdowne (away), Buccaneers (home), Ballymena (away), UCD (away)
Have won their last five games in the AIB League and Cup. Harlequins have only one home game left and must play two other relegation contenders - UCD and Buccaneers - before the season ends.
They have an Ulster derby at Eaton Park where they have lost on all three previous visits in the AIB League. Currently, they have lost eight games and no club has ever been relegated with that number of defeats.
Forecast: After eight losses, they have turned the corner recently. They should stay up if they beat Buccaneers and UCD and that is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Now eight seasons in the AIB League, Harlequins have spent six of those years in the top flight.
- With thanks to Irish rugby statistician Des Daly -