The 52 participating clubs are entering the second half of the Ulster Bank League season, with Clontarf, Terenure College, Galwegians and Nenagh Ormond leading their respective divisions at the halfway point. In this article we take a look at Divisions 1A and 1B.
Clontarf have emerged as the front runners in the top flight, stringing together eight wins on the trot since their opening round defeat at Old Belvedere.
‘Tarf’s pack has been particularly impressive, their hard graft setting up top-scoring out-half David Joyce (115 points) for a number of decisive kicks. Winger Michael McGrath has also been in superb form – although very much a marked man, he has managed to notch nine tries to date, including some match-winning scores.
McGrath’s exploits have helped Andy Wood’s men push through the 200-point mark, an achievement that only reigning champions Lansdowne (235) and former leaders UCD (204) have matched so far.
Like Clontarf, second-placed ‘Belvo also got off to a shaky start – winning just once in their first three games – but captain Daniel Riordan and young back rower Jack Conan have starred during a seven-match unbeaten run.
At present, third-placed Young Munster are the only non-Dublin club in the top five, while Cork Constitution and Dolphin – whose November derby was streamed live on IrishRugby.ie – will be disappointed to have slipped to sixth and seventh places respectively.
Derek Suffern’s Ballynahinch side have caught the eye of late. They have been particularly tough to beat – picking up six bonus points in their seven defeats – and picked up maiden victories over Garryowen and UCD, with their Kiwi out-half Richie Lobb scoring 22 points in that recent Belfield success.
Bottom side Garryowen look doomed to relegation following nine successive losses, and their heartbreaking Munster Senior Cup final defeat to Cork Constitution was another dent to their confidence levels.
Still, the Light Blues have nine games to negotiate, and will be targeting clashes with their basement neighbours – ‘Hinch (February 1), Dolphin (March 29) and St. Mary’s College (April 12).
Leaders Terenure College have beaten all before them in Division 1B, racking up nine straight wins before Christmas with five try-scoring bonus points and points difference of +179.
Coached by James Blaney and captained by talismanic openside James O’Neill – a Limerick man who teaches English and Geography in the College – ‘Nure have a strong nucleus of players from their Division 2A days, allied to influential signings such as ex-Shannon lock Fergal Walsh and Kiwi back Richie Smith.
Half-backs and siblings Mark (82 points) and Kevin O’Neill (5 tries) have been a key combination for Blaney’s side, who really stamped their authority on the division with November’s 57-10 hammering of previously unbeaten rivals Corinthians in Galway.
But Corinthians, who are nine points adrift in second place, are in this for the long haul. They recovered from that disastrous result with two wins on the bounce and will hope to have promising out-half Sean O’Hagan – their top scorer with 65 points – back from injury soon.
UL Bohemians have vaulted over Buccaneers into third place – with talented number 8 Jack O’Donoghue, an Ireland Under-20 international and Munster U-20 captain, the pick of their young players.
Fifth-placed Shannon lost three of their opening four games on the back of being relegated last season, but the Limerick giants have steadied the ship of late with experienced hands Tadhg Bennett (58 points), David O’Donovan and David Quinlan having vital contributions.
Like Bennett, Belfast Harlequins’ place-kicker Liam Cambridge (97 points) has nailed some pressure kicks this term. ‘Quins are sixth at present but lie 12 points behind Corinthians and could yet mount a push for promotion.
The relegation picture will become clearer in the coming months. Only four points separate the bottom four sides at things stand, with Malone – winless since September – recently sending Dungannon to the bottom following their fifth losing bonus point of the campaign.