Promotion-chasing UCC and Lansdowne have both booked their places in the AIB League Division Two semi-finals with away wins – UCC’s bonus point triumph at Greystones moves them to the top of the table – while the relegation battle is heating up, with only eight points separating the bottom four clubs.
As things stand, it looks like UCC, Lansdowne, Ballynahinch and Old Crescent will be contesting next month’s semi-finals, with UCC and Lansdowne in pole position to gain promotion into the newly-formatted Division One Section B.
But with a game in hand on the current top two, AIB Cup finalists ‘Hinch could still be in the promotion shake-up.
Should they win their postponed match at home to Highfield, with a bonus point, the County Down side would close the gap on second-placed Lansdowne to just two points.
Fifth-placed Bruff, who were pipped 22-20 by ‘Hinch last weekend, still have an outside chance of reaching the play-offs but they will need two bonus point wins and a capitulation from their Limerick rivals Old Crescent in order to get back into the top four.
At the other end of the table, relegation issues are still to be ironed out. Instonians, the Division Three play-off final winners last year, looked primed for a return to the third tier.
‘Inst are currently bottom with 13 points and their Division Two future rests on their final games against Ballynahinch and Belfast Harlequins.
With two rounds to go, Wanderers (17 points) and Thomond (18 points) are far from safe. The sides met at Liam Fitzgerald Park last weekend and Thomond emerged with a much-needed 19-9 victory.
Above them, De La Salle Palmerston still have some work to do to secure Division Two rugby for next season, while Harlequins and Clonakilty (both 23 points) also need one more to guarantee their safety.
The result of last weekend’s round came at Dr Hickey Park where UCC, last season’s Division Two play-off final winners, romped to a 46-3 win over Greystones.
This was a supremely confident display from the Cork students, right from when their scrum half and captain Sam Cronin touched down after the ball had squirted out of a Greystones scrum.
UCC led 19-3 at half-time thanks to further tries from out-half Gavin Dunne and centre Alex Kelleher, while number 10 James Power opened ‘Stones’ account with a 40-metre penalty.
UCC had to bide their time for the bonus point-clinching try. It arrived on 63 minutes when Cronin scampered over to the right of the posts after a series of forward drives.
Flanker David O’Callaghan got in on the try-scoring act, nine minutes later, and the sixth followed two minutes from the finish when a slick back-line move put winger Brian Derham over.
The meeting of Bruff and Ballynahinch at Kilballyowen Park was always going to be a hotly-contested tie and so it proved. It took a late penalty goal from out-half Ryan Bambry to seal a 22-20 win for Derek Suffern’s side.
Aided by a strong wind and dominant pack, Bruff had enough possession to be comfortably ahead at half-time but their error count was high and ‘Hinch capitalised on those mistakes to turn around with a 14-10 lead.
They outscored the hosts by two tries to one, in the opening 40 minutes, with prop Chris Stevenson swooping on a loose ball to score in the 12th minute and Bambry also crossed late in the half, winning the race to his own kick through.
Winger Finbarr Hogan blazed through, making use of the space created by his team-mates, to score Bruff’s try, 26 minutes into the game.
‘Hinch made a strong start to the second half, with Gareth Rourke charging past two attempted tackles to score an impressive try. Bambry’s missed conversion left it 19-10.
But Bruff, as AIB League sides up and down the country know, are made of stern stuff. Back they came, and following a second Brian Cahill penalty, team captain Cathal O’Regan muscled his way over for a try from close range.
Cahill added the extras to put the home side 20-19 ahead but Bambry converted a penalty, eight minutes from time, and despite Bruff laying siege to the visitors’ line in the closing stages, the Ulster League champions held firm for an important win.
Elsewhere, there were home wins for Clonakilty (24-9 against Bective Rangers) and DLSP (20-13 against Old Crescent), while Dublin University also made use of home advantage to defeat Instonians 17-13.
Derek Dillon, Joe Crowley and Bless Nygahue scored Clon’s tries against Bective, Niall Smullen touched down for ‘Salmo in their latest win, while Trinity counted on a trio of tries from Scott Lavalla, Conor Colclough and Neil Hanratty.
Lansdowne out-half Dave Hewitt scored a try and a conversion in his side’s 17-7 win at Woodleigh Park, with Robbie Dolan and Colum Murphy also crossing the Highfield whitewash.
Declan Cusack had a central role as Thomond beat their fellow strugglers Wanderers 19-9. He kicked three penalties, a conversion and a drop goal, with the hosts’ try coming from Kevin O’Mahony.
Meanwhile, in a lively Belfast derby, Malone outscored ‘Quins by five tries to three on their way to a well-merited 31-15 victory at Gibson Park.
Malone, scoring their first ever win over ‘Quins, were 10-0 to the good at half-time and it took late tries from Robert Logan (2) and Stuart Philpott to give the visitors some consolation.
Two of Malone’s Ulster players, prop Jarleth Carey and winger Mark McCrea, touched down in an opening half that saw both sides lose their discipline at times.
‘Quins had Chris McCarey and Alastair Heatlie yellow carded, while Malone’s Darren Barbour was sent-off, before the break, for leading with his elbow after tempers flared following a high tackle.
Second half tries from McCrea, the impressive John Anderson and replacement hooker Simon Bailie put the result beyond doubt, before ‘Quins mounted a late rally.
DIVISION TWO RESULTS: Saturday, March 28
Bruff 20 Ballynahinch 22, Kilballyowen Park
Clonakilty 24 Bective Rangers 9, Shannonvale Cross
De La Salle Palmerston 20 Old Crescent 13, Kilternan
Dublin University 17 Instonians 13, College Park
Greystones 3 UCC 46, Dr Hickey Park
Highfield 7 Lansdowne 17, Woodleigh Park
Malone 31 Belfast Harlequins 15, Gibson Park
Thomond 19 Wanderers 9, Liam Fitzgerald Park
DIVISION TWO FIXTURES TO COME:
Ballynahinch v Highfield, Ballymacarn Park (date to be confirmed)
Saturday, April 11 –
Ballynahinch v Instonians, Ballymacarn Park
Bective Rangers v Greystones, Donnybrook
Belfast Harlequins v Dublin University, Deramore Park
Bruff v Clonakilty, Kilballyowen Park
Lansdowne v Malone, The RDS
Old Crescent v Highfield, Rosbrien
UCC v Thomond, The Mardyke
Wanderers v De La Salle Palmerston, Merrion Road
Saturday, April 18 –
Clonakilty v Ballynahinch, Shannonvale Cross
De La Salle Palmerston v UCC, Kilternan
Dublin University v Lansdowne, College Park
Greystones v Bruff, Dr Hickey Park
Highfield v Wanderers, Woodleigh Park
Instonians v Belfast Harlequins, Shaw’s Bridge
Malone v Old Crescent, Gibson Park
Thomond v Bective Rangers, Liam Fitzgerald Park
Saturday, April 25 – Semi-finals
Saturday, May 9 – Final