11/04/02.If Cork Constitution are considered warm favourites for the Division One crown, then Belfast Harlequins are even a warmer order to take the AIB League Division Two title.
The Belfast club topped the table by a remarkable 18 points and swept to their promotion to the top flight, scoring a hatful of points in the process – 550 in all – while thrilling spectators with their brand of entertaining, expansive rugby.
Belfast lost just once in the entire league campaign, a narrow defeat to promotion chasing Barnhall in early March, had the title wrapped up with three games still to play, and logic dictates that they will be too strong for an
injury hit Old Crescent side on Saturday.
The Belfast club have built up a real head of steam under the direction of Andre Bester, their South African coach, and have averaged over 35 points a match this season.
Bester’s compatriot, Rhys Botha, has excelled in the centre alongside Sheldon Coulter and the goalkicking of Niall Malone has been
unerringly accurate. Improvements could be made in the pack, but captain Davy Scott has mobilised the unit to the
extent that the side was virtually unstoppable in the division.
With the team flying, Ulster’s Neil Doak and Simon Best are likely to start on the bench while Clem Boyd is still nursing a shoulder injury.
Not that Belfast will consider the semi-final a foregone conclusion. At Rosbrien early in the season, the visitors required two late tries for a slender 17-15 victory and they expect nothing less than a grueling game come 2.30 p.m. from a committed Old Crescent outfit.
But with key players still carrying knocks from the defeat at Barnhall a fortnight ago, Crescent face an uphill struggle. Their back-row is an area the visitors hope bears dividends with the
trio regarded as exceptionally strong for Division Two, but player-coach Matt T’Pau is struggling to be fit and will be sorely missed should he not recover.
As will influential flanker David Bowles, should he be forced to sit out the match and with Stephen Tuohy and Sean Madigan also
receiving treatment the portents aren’t good for the Limerick challengers.
There will be the whiff of revenge in the air
for Barnhall in the other semi-final (re-fixed for Sunday April 14th) after upwardly mobile UL Bohemians squeezed the Kildare club out of the promotion places by virtue of points (20) difference.
Barnhall are still smarting after missing out on promotion, a defeat at the hands of Midleton effectively sealing their fate, and they will be desperate to put one over their hosts. Coach Ian
Morgan had guided his side to five promotions in six years and the fact that they missed out on the big one this year is hard to stomach round Leixlip way.
Barnhall will rely on the talismanic Trevor Brennan for inspiration and captain Myles
O’Reilly in the centre for his capable leadership as the travel to Limerick. Brennan has proved invaluable since his return to the club from St Mary’s and has been the driving force behind much of the club’s success this season.
UL Bohemians, will look to the likes of Irish Under 21 talents Jody Danaher and Martin McPhail to secure victory. However, Barnhall may show the greater hunger and could just shade it on the day.