With 14 points separating the top five clubs in Division 1B and just four points covering the bottom five, there is a huge amount to play for when the Ulster Bank League resumes this weekend.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, January 3
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYMENA (2nd) v BELFAST HARLEQUINS (10th), Eaton Park
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Ballymena: WWWWWLLWWD; Belfast Harlequins: LLWLWLLLLW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 54; Tries: Tim Small, Sean Taylor 5 each; Belfast Harlequins: Points: Eamon Lane 46; Tries: David McMaster 5
Preview: Two Ulster rivals who have had contrasting results to date, with Ballymena posting seven wins before Christmas and Belfast Harlequins suffering seven defeats.
Harlequins did at least boost their hopes with a bonus point victory over UL Bohemians in the last round. Adam Larkin called it ‘a great springboard’ towards this local derby, and he will have Rory Scholes and probably Neil McComb available again.
Ballymena have been faultless at home – apart from a derby reversal to Malone – so Andy Graham’s men should have all bases covered as they look to do the double on ‘Quins.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, April 27, 2013: Ballymena 22 Belfast Harlequins 21, Eaton Park; Saturday, September 20, 2014: Belfast Harlequins 14 Ballymena 22, Deramore Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballymena to win
GALWEGIANS (1st) v SHANNON (9th), Crowley Park
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Galwegians: WWWWLWWWWL; Shannon: LLLWLLWLWL
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Galwegians: Points: Matt Dever 25; Tries: Matt Dever 5; Shannon: Points: Tadhg Bennett 52; Tries: John Shine 4
Preview: Galwegians’ Christmas dinner will have been slightly soured by their 30-point hammering by in-form Trinity in the previous round. Hopefully for ‘Wegians sake, it was just an ill-timed blip.
Matt Brown’s charges will want to quickly put that result to bed with a much-improved performance against Shannon, whom they beat 29-25 when the sides met in Limerick in September.
Shannon scored three closing tries that day to earn a losing bonus point, and they may have to hope for a similar return given that ‘Wegians have lost just one of their last 13 league matches at Crowley Park.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, September 20, 2014: Shannon 25 Galwegians 29, Thomond Park back pitch
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Galwegians to win
GARRYOWEN (3rd) v BUCCANEERS (5th), Dooradoyle
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Garryowen: WLWWLWWWLW; Buccaneers: LWWLLWDWLW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Garryowen: Points: Jamie Gavin 92; Tries: Alex Wootton 4; Buccaneers: Points: Alan Gaughan 57; Tries: Jacob Walshe 4
Preview: There was not much between these sides when they met in Athlone in September, scrum half Mark Dolan’s 65th-minute try proving crucial for Buccaneers in a 25-22 win.
Garryowen have shown the better form since then, winning six of their next eight league games. Their latest success saw them beat local rivals Shannon, with impressive out-half Jamie Gavin boosting his tally for the campaign to 92 points.
Buccs, who could have former Garryowen ace Alan Gaughan back at out-half, have lost just once away so far this season, but the Light Blues are favoured to start the New Year on a winning note.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, September 20, 2014: Buccaneers 25 Garryowen 22, Dubarry Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Garryowen to win
MALONE (8th) v CORINTHIANS (6th), Gibson Park
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Malone: WLLLWWLLLL; Corinthians: LWLLWLWLLD
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Malone: Points: Josh Pentland 72; Tries: Rory Campbell 4; Corinthians: Points: Conor Murphy 42; Tries: Eoghan Masterson, Conor Murphy 3 each
Preview: The league table makes for disappointing viewing for Malone following four defeats on the trot. Sixth-placed Corinthians are two points better off following their draw with Ballymena.
The obvious positive for Malone is they seem to like playing the Galway side – they put 52 points on them last April and a late Josh Pentland penalty secured a losing bonus point at Corinthian Park in September.
Winning on the road is vital if Corinthians are to get back in touch with the sides above them. There is a seven-point gap between themselves and Buccaneers, but hungry Malone should take the spoils in this Belfast encounter.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, April 19, 2014: Malone 52 Corinthians 18, Gibson Park; Saturday, September 20, 2014: Corinthians 29 Malone 24, Corinthian Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Malone to win
UL BOHEMIANS (7th) v DUBLIN UNIVERSITY (4th), Thomond Park back pitch
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – UL Bohemians: WWLLLLLLWL; Dublin University: LLLWWWDWWW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – UL Bohemians: Points: Shane Airey 80; Tries: Ian Condell 3; Dublin University: Points: Jack McDermott 82; Tries: Conor Kearns 5
Preview: Dublin University certainly owe UL Bohemians one after two defeats at Sydney Parade in 2014, by seven and three-point margins respectively.
These student derbies are always tight contests, but Trinity stand a good chance of prevailing if they can maintain their pre-Christmas form which produced six wins and a draw.
With seven losses in their last eight outings, UL have noticeably struggled with injuries. They will be hoping for a good return from out-half Shane Airey in his kicking duel Jack McDermott. Between the pair, they accumulated 162 points in the previous 10 rounds.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 1, 2014: Dublin University 12 UL Bohemians 19, Sydney Parade; Saturday, September 20, 2014: Dublin University 13 UL Bohemians 16, Sydney Parade
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Dublin University to win