Two of Cork club rugby’s leading lights, Dolphin and UCC, have the honour of kicking off the Ulster Bank League Division 1B action for 2018. Table toppers Shannon welcome Naas to Thomond Park’s back pitch on Saturday, at the same time that second-placed Ballynahinch battle it out with Ulster rivals Ballymena.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, January 6
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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DOLPHIN (10th) v UCC (4th), Irish Independent Park, tonight, 7.30pm
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Dolphin: LWLLLLLLLL; UCC: LDLWWWWLWW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Dolphin: Points: Barry Keeshan 64; Tries: Brian Scott, James Rochford 2 each; UCC: Points: James Taylor 100; Tries: Kevin Slater 4
Preview: These Cork rivals ended 2017 fighting two very different battles, with an eight-match losing streak keeping Dolphin on the bottom rung of the league ladder, and UCC winning six of their last seven matches to put them in contention for a promotion play-off spot.
Brian Walsh’s first season in charge at the Mardyke has seen them claim some significant scalps, including their December double over UL Bohemians, while out-half James Taylor, who has amassed 100 points, is one of the young talents pushing through.
Taylor’s duel with Dolphin’s legendary place-kicker and assistant coach Barry Keeshan could be decisive tonight. The youngster had the upper hand in November’s meeting at the Mardyke, nailing the match-winning 80th-minute penalty, but Dolphin’s ability to pick up losing bonus points in recent rounds shows they are on the cusp of that elusive second victory.
Recent League Meetings – Friday, February 3, 2017: Dolphin 9 UCC 19, Irish Independent Park; Friday, November 10, 2017: UCC 20 Dolphin 19, the Mardyke
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: UCC to win
SHANNON (1st) v NAAS (6th), Thomond Park back pitch, 1pm
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Shannon: WWWWWWLWLW; Naas: WWLLLLWLWD
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Shannon: Points: Conor Fitzgerald 115; Tries: Conor Fitzgerald 7; Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 60; Tries: Fionn Higgins 6
Preview: A Conor Fitzgerald-inspired Shannon avenged the previous week’s defeat to Ballynahinch with a superb 49-19 success last time out, and now they have the chance to get the better of a Naas side who beat them 21-18 back in November.
Talking about the growth of Shannon’s young squad, head coach Tom Hayes said: “They’re just maturing across the board, there’s an extra year’s rugby under their belts. The core of the squad got fed up with the way things had gone last year. There’s been a change in mentality, they’ve really set out to make their own identity as a group.”
Naas, who drew with Old Wesley in the last round, have bolstered their back-line for tomorrow with the addition of Fionn Carr and player-coach Johne Murphy, with Warren Larkin, Cillian Dempsey and Paul Monahan swapped in as starters in the pack.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 11, 2017: Naas 21 Shannon 14, Forenaughts; Saturday, November 11, 2017: Naas 21 Shannon 18, Forenaughts
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Shannon to win
BALLYNAHINCH (2nd) v BALLYMENA (8th), Ballymacarn Park
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Ballynahinch: LWWWLWWWWL; Ballymena: WLLLWLLLWL
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Ballynahinch: Points: Johnny McPhillips 83; Tries: Conor Kelly 6; Ballymena: Points: Brett Herron 65; Tries: Rodger McBurney 5
Preview: Injuries and unavailability due to Ulster commitments take away some of the frontliners from this provincial derby, which sees second-placed Ballynahinch looking to bounce back from their 30-point hammering by Shannon before Christmas.
Visitors Ballymena, who lost 27-0 at home to ‘Hinch in November, would gladly swap positions with Brian McLaughlin’s men as they have slipped to eighth overall. Andy Graham’s selection is further hampered by injuries picked up by Mark Foster, Alan Smyth, James Taggart and Matthew Norris, while veteran prop Bryan Young is unavailable tomorrow.
The Braidmen are desperate for a result to move them away from relegation trouble, but Ballynahinch are always strong at home and with promising young winger Conor Kelly in a rich vein of form, with three tries in his last two league games, McLaughlin’s charges are warm favourites to make a winning start to 2018.
Recent League Meetings – Friday, February 3, 2017: Ballymena 12 Ballynahinch 24, Eaton Park; Saturday, November 11, 2017: Ballymena 0 Ballynahinch 27, Eaton Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballynahinch to win
OLD BELVEDERE (5th) v BANBRIDGE (3rd), Anglesea Road
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Old Belvedere: LLWDWWLWLW; Banbridge: WDWWWLWLWW
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Old Belvedere: Points: Tim Foley 82; Tries: Shane McDonald 4; Banbridge: Points: Ian Porter 88; Tries: Andrew Morrison 6
Preview: Both clubs ended 2017 on a winning note in the league, with Old Belvedere scoring 20 unanswered second half points against Ballymena, while third-placed Banbridge kept in touch with the leading sides thanks to a hard-earned 16-11 win at Dolphin.
A tough test awaits Bann in Dublin as they try to follow up on November’s 15-14 defeat of the same opposition. Caleb Montgomery and Eric O’Sullivan have been released by Ulster to play, but Tom O’Toole, James Hume and Michael Lowry are all sidelined through injury.
Eddie O’Sullivan’s ‘Belvo outfit have the best defence in the division at present, conceding an average of 14 points per game. They need to be more clinical in attack, although left winger Aaron Sheehan has shown the way with three tries in as many matches before Christmas.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, November 11, 2017: Banbridge 15 Old Belvedere 14, Rifle Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Banbridge to win
OLD WESLEY (7th) v UL BOHEMIANS (9th), Donnybrook
Ulster Bank League Season’s Form: Old Wesley: LLLDLWWWLD; UL Bohemians: LLWLLLLWLL
Ulster Bank League Top Scorers – Old Wesley: Points: Jack Maybury 96; Tries: Jack Maybury, Tommy O’Callaghan 4 each; UL Bohemians: Points: Robbie Bourke 40; Tries: James Ryan 4
Preview: The pressure has heightened on both Old Wesley and UL Bohemians after both sides failed to win any of their December back-to-back matches. Wesley are five points and two places better off in seventh place.
The Dubliners drew 23-all with Naas last time out, with winger Tommy O’Callaghan crossing for his fourth try of the campaign to match full-back Jack Maybury’s tally. Maybury, who has also impressed as a goal-kicker, now has 96 points to his name.
Second-from-bottom UL Bohs still have Ballymena and Wesley within reach above them. They also have a shot at silverware in next week’s Munster Senior Cup final against Garryowen. Flanker James Ryan, who has led the way with four tries in the league, also touched down in their semi-final victory over Bruff before Christmas.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 25, 2017: Old Wesley 31 UL Bohemians 27, Donnybrook; Saturday, November 11, 2017: UL Bohemians 7 Old Wesley 13, University of Limerick 4G pitch
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win