Only four points cover the top five clubs in Ulster Bank League Division 2A, so plenty of thrills and spills are expected as the battle for promotion cranks up again tomorrow.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 2A: Saturday, January 21
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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Banbridge (2nd) v Highfield (4th), Rifle Park
Away losses to Nenagh Ormond and Highfield before Christmas dented second-placed Banbridge’s promotion challenge, and they will be relishing this chance to avenge that 26-15 reversal in Cork seven weeks ago.
Bann head coach Daniel Soper welcomes back captain Adam Ervine after a month away in New Zealand and lock Chris Allen returns from a shoulder injury. They also restored some confidence with last week’s 22-3 SONI Ulster Premiership win over Dungannon.
Highfield’s dominance of possession and territory, coupled with captain Paddy O’Toole’s unerring boot, were key factors in the round 9 meeting. They really pressed Cork Constitution in last week’s Cork Charity Cup decider, taking them to extra-time, and Bann can expect another testing day at the office.
Belfast Harlequins (10th) v Malone (5th), Deramore Park
It is now or never for bottom side Belfast Harlequins who have a 10-point deficit to make up on Cashel above them. ‘Quins did at least begin the New Year with morale-boosting SONI Premiership victories over Rainey Old Boys and Bangor.
They now face into two local derbies with Malone and Queen’s, and having two influential forwards – Ben Alexander and Danny Annett – back in the squad this week is a real plus for head coach Andrew Gillespie.
His Malone counterpart Paddy Armstrong watched his side win 37-5 at Sunday’s Well in a rescheduled league tie last Saturday. That was their third victory in a row and their back-line accounted for all five tries, with full-back Mark O’Connor finishing with 17 points.
Blackrock College (6th) v Nenagh Ormond (1st), Stradbrook
Despite scoring three tries, Blackrock were well beaten by Nenagh (32-17) in the sides’ first encounter. Kiwi out-half Clayton Stewart was hugely influential again, scoring two converted tries and a penalty to take his league haul to a stunning 120 points already.
How to curb Stewart’s match-winning ways is the conundrum for Blackrock who have fallen out of the top half of the table on the back of three successive losses.
Nenagh’s forwards really shone in a first half that ended 22-0 in the Tipperary side’s favour, so Owen Cullen and his colleagues will need hit the ground running in order to get ‘Rock firing early in their revenge mission.
Cashel (9th) v Queen’s University (3rd), Spafield
Cashel may be second from bottom at present, but they are playing like a club that should be much further up the table. They have picked up 11 of their 14 league points in the last four rounds, topped off by their 24-22 win at Queen’s on December 3.
Cashel’s scrummaging power, enhanced by ‘super sub’ Tommy Allen, proved too much for the students as they forced a decisive penalty try in injury-time, with Ollie McGlinchey’s conversion completing his own 14-point haul.
Exams, injuries and illness, coupled with a busy weekend for the Ulster senior and ‘A’ teams, leaves the Queen’s squad extremely stretched for this rematch, but head coach Bob Young knows his young charges are more than capable of righting the wrongs of that frustrating home display.
Sunday’s Well (8th) v Corinthians (7th), Irish Independent Park
Sunday’s Well were taught a lesson in creating and finishing chances by Malone last week, the Cregagh Red Sox coming away from Irish Independent Park as 32-point victors. The ‘Well, who lie eighth in the standings, can ill-afford another slip up at home.
Corinthians also had the Cork side’s number when they hosted them in early December, their well-executed 39-22 success including a second half brace from impressive winger Joe Murphy.
However, Murphy was on the bench for Connacht Eagles last week and the province’s final British & Irish Cup pool game means Corinthians are down a few frontliners again. With that in mind, the ‘Well should be able to take advantage – and ultimately the result.