10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
Two clubs are aiming for a first foray into senior rugby namely Tullamore and Monivea while Portadown and Richmond are looking to make a return to the Ulster Bank League.
All four sides won their leagues with a bit to spare, only Richmond had any serious challenge - from a rising Kanturk side - although none of the other three sides came through unscathed.
Tullamore lost away at Cill Dara and Wanderers but swept all before them beyond that, Portadown lost at CIYMS but rarely looked troubled in the other 17 rounds, Monivea slipped up against Ballina late in the season.
Caption: Action from last year's qualfiers where Monivea edged Richmond at the Castle Grounds in round 1. Pic: Luke O'Donnell.
So how will it play out?
The short prediction is for Tullamore to sweep the board and Portadown to edge the battle for second ahead of Richmond and then Monivea but that's being lazy and not focusing in on some evidence that goes against this conventional wisdom.
First of all, for all Tullamore's dominance in Leinster, this coming away trip to Portadown is in no way a straight forward affair and they have proven to be vulnerable away from home this year on at least a couple of occasions.
Secondly, there is plenty of reason to say Portadown will sweep the board with two home games and a strong past record in this competition.
Thirdly, Monivea might be outsiders this weekend and they do clearly have a much smaller squad than in previous campaigns but they have the kind of experience of this tournament that none of the other sides have and that's got to count for something with two home games on the horizon.
And finally, why write off Richmond, they are entering a third series in four years, they have a home game to start and a pack that could prove cumbersome to the other two sides plus a lethal finisher in Michael Kellher at 13.
Yet taking all that into account, who really is going to bet against John Moylan, John Burns and the All Ireland Champions from Tullamore.
No one expects them to cruise up in Portadown and the men in all blue are certainly an unpredictable force but they are primed for this AIL opener and should produce their best.
It promises to be a fascinating clash, both clubs will deny it, but they both carry a lot of confidence into this series and there is probably a sense among supporters at least that if their side win at the weekend they won't be stopped.
Richmond and Monivea are both capable of securing second but it's very hard to see either winning all three games and the loser in Limerick next Saturday will most likely finish bottom.
Monivea come into the competition with very little expected of them and that might be refreshing change for the more experienced panel members. Most pundits are backing Richmond this weekend and disregarding the Connacht side's better record in that fixture in recent season.
Some of that is based on tradition but more of it is based on the fact that Monivea are operating off a small squad, dealing with key injuries and the unavailability of Caolan Blade who is on Irish under 18 duty.
Also Richmond have the pack to really cause them problems in the loose and while the Monivea scrum continues to improve and can take on the best, it might be a game that is one in the loose forward play.
If Richmond do come out with the points their there clash with Tullamore becomes a shot to nothing with another chance to at least finish second if they win in Chambers Park in the final round.
For now, our call is that on the final day, Tullamore will take the title with a win at the Castle Grounds and second place will be decided up north but If Monivea upset the odds in Limerick and Portadown find the same formula that Wanderers and Cill Dara discovered earlier in the campaign, we'll be scrambling to explain ourselves on Saturday evening and another mad cap qualifier series will be up and running.
Don't forget also that Tullamore, Monivea and Richmond will all be in cup action on Easter Sunday. Tullamore face Tullow in the Towns Cup semi final, Monivea are in Junior Cup final action in Connacht and Richmond have a Junior Cup quarter final in Clonmel.
It will be interesting to see how much of a help or a distraction those games prove to be and contrast that with Portadown who will get an extra week's rest after their home opener this Saturday.
Ulster Bank League- Qualifying Round Robin Fixtures
March 23 (2:30)
Portadown v Tullamore, Chambers Park
Richmond v Monivea, Canal Bank
April 6 (2:30)
Monivea v Portadown, Castleb Grounds
Tullamore v Richmond, Spollanstown
April 13 (2:30)
Monivea v Tullamore, Castle Grounds
Portadown v Richmond, Chambers Park
April 2 (2:30)
15th in Division 2a v 2nd in Round Robin
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