Entering the second half of the season, the race to gain promotion and avoid relegation in Ulster Bank League Division 1B quickens with five mouth-watering fixtures in Limerick, Dublin, Ballymena and Athlone this Saturday.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, January 2
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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SHANNON (5th) v DUBLIN UNIVERSITY (3rd), Thomond Park, 1.30pm
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Shannon: LLLLWWWWL; Dublin University: LLWWWWWWW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Shannon: Points: Tadhg Bennett 43; Tries: Stephen Fitzgerald 3; Dublin University: Points: Jack McDermott 83; Tries: Max McFarland 7
Preview: Shannon’s four-match winning run came to a halt at College Park last time out, but they showed enough to suggest that this rematch will be a tighter affair.
Marcus Horan’s charges were well in the hunt when trailing 19-11 at half-time, but Trinity sewed up the result with lightning quick winger Max McFarland finishing with a hat-trick of tries, taking himself to the top of the Division 1B scoring charts (7 tries).
The students converted a couple of turnovers into crucial breakaway scores, so if Shannon can avoid this and also manage to get a better return from their pack and out-half Tadhg Bennett’s tactical kicking, they could swing the game in their favour.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 28, 2015: Shannon 13 Dublin University 19, Coonagh; Saturday, December 5, 2015: Dublin University 36 Shannon 11, College Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Dublin University to win
BALLYMENA (2nd) v OLD WESLEY (4th), Eaton Park
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Ballymena: WWWWWLWWW; Old Wesley: WWWWLLWLL
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Ballymena: Points: Ritchie McMaster 62; Tries: Callum Patterson 5; Old Wesley: Points: Barry McLaughlin 117; Tries: Barry McLaughlin, Ian Cassidy 3 each
Preview: Two massive weeks ahead for Old Wesley as they open the New Year with back-to-back clashes with two of their promotion rivals, second-placed Ballymena and current leaders St. Mary’s College.
Wesley, in fourth spot, are 11 points behind Mary’s and having lost 21-15 at home to Ballymena before Christmas, Morgan Lennon’s side are very much in ‘must win’ territory at the midway point of the season.
Ballymena have won their last five home league fixtures – a run that stretches back to last March when Garryowen were the visitors – and look in top form. However, along with the disappointment of losing the recent Ulster Senior Cup final to Ballynahinch, they are without their excellent number 8 Matthew Rea (fractured fibula) for a number of weeks.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, November 2, 2013: Ballymena 21 Old Wesley 6, Eaton Park; Saturday, December 5, 2015: Old Wesley 15 Ballymena 21, Donnybrook
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballymena to win
BLACKROCK COLLEGE (7th) v DOLPHIN (8th), Stradbrook
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Blackrock College: WWLLLLLWL; Dolphin: LLWLWWLLW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Blackrock College: Points: Jack O’Carroll 27; Tries: Mikey Carroll 4; Dolphin: Points: Cian McGovern 27; Tries: Chris Rowe 4
Preview: Dolphin lifted themselves out of the relegation play-off position with a hard-fought 17-15 home win over Blackrock College the week before Christmas. Second row and captain Chris Rowe starred with a two-try contribution.
The return fixture has plenty riding on it, with only two points separating eighth-placed Dolphin from Shannon in fifth. The pressure is increasing on Blackrock who have lost six of their last seven games.
Emmet Farrell’s young ‘Rock side failed to fully capitalise on two second half sin-binnings for Dolphin, and another durable display from the Corkmen could steer them to a second successive victory.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 31, 2012: Blackrock College 31 Dolphin 24, Stradbrook; Saturday, December 19, 2015: Dolphin 17 Blackrock College 15, Irish Independent Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Dolphin to win
BUCCANEERS (6th) v UL BOHEMIANS (9th), Dubarry Park
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – Buccaneers: WLWWLLLLL; UL Bohemians: LWLLLWLLW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Buccaneers: Points: Conor McKeon 47; Tries: Rory O’Connor 6; UL Bohemians: Points: Rick McKenna 44; Tries: Darren Moroney, Jamie McNamara, Cian Aherne, Ian Condell 2 each
Preview: A disastrous final quarter at UL Bohemians, during which they leaked three tries, consigned Buccaneers to their fifth defeat in a row. This rematch gives Brett Wilkinson’s side a quick chance to atone for those mistakes.
Part of Buccs’ problem is they have not been able to field a settled line-up of late. Their 20 enforced personnel changes in the last three rounds – mainly due to Connacht’s own injury crisis – have had a negative impact on their play.
Flanker and captain Ian Condell, who scored a brace of tries, inspired UL’s third win of the campaign. More of the same will be required in the midlands, and UL will certainly draw confidence from their 32-0 victory in Athlone last March when they ran in five tries without reply.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 28, 2015: Buccaneers 0 UL Bohemians 32, Dubarry Park; Saturday, December 5, 2015: UL Bohemians 20 Buccaneers 13, University of Limerick 4G pitch
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Buccaneers to win
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (1st) v BELFAST HARLEQUINS (10th), Templeville Road
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form – St. Mary’s College: WWWLWWWWW; Belfast Harlequins: LLLLLLLLL
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – St. Mary’s College: Points: Sean Kearns 101; Tries: Darragh Fanning 5; Belfast Harlequins: Points: Mark Best 41; Tries: Mark Glover 3
Preview: Hard to see anything other than a home win here as St. Mary’s look to stay top of the pile. They were double scores winners – 32-16 – when they visited bottom side Belfast Harlequins in the last round.
Mary’s departing head coach Peter Smyth – the new Leinster Rugby Academy Manager – is the club’s ‘guest of honour’ at Saturday’s pre-match lunch. Jamie Cornett is to head up the coaching team at Templeville Road which includes Malcolm O’Kelly as forwards coach.
Darragh Fanning and try-scoring prop Brian McGovern were the star men for Mary’s in Belfast. Winless Harlequins will hope for better days ahead. Ten tries scored in their last four matches is a decent return, but it is in defence where they need to make serious improvements.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, December 5, 2015: Belfast Harlequins 16 St. Mary’s College 32, Deramore Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: St. Mary’s College to win