The top three teams in Ulster Bank League Division 2B all have home advantage this weekend, with plenty of local derbies and provincial tussles pencilled in, including two all-Ulster encounters at Stevenson Park and Hatrick Park.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 2B: Saturday, January 6
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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Old Crescent (1st) v Sunday’s Well (8th), Rosbrien, Friday, 7.45pm
Old Crescent have looked in unstoppable form at times, and their ten straight wins are the result of hard work and a very talented squad that is well-coached by Brendan Guilfoyle, Eugene McGovern and Brian Tuohy, the backs coach who continues to get among the tries from full-back.
Nonetheless, the division’s unbeaten leaders found it tough going away to Sunday’s Well in November, needing Larry Hanly’s 67th-minute try to run out 16-6 winners in Cork. The ‘Well are in danger of being cut off along with the bottom two, after suffering seven defeats so far.
The Corkmen had former captain Kieran Stokes back for their 29-21 loss to Rainey Old Boys, and he impressed with a try and a powerful break which set up a second score. Their lineout remains one of the strongest areas of their game, aided by the jumping ability of young back rower Conor O’Brien.
Navan (5th) v Skerries (7th), Balreask Old, Friday, 8pm
Navan had 27 points to spare when they visited Holmpatrick in November but this rematch offers Skerries a chance to show they are a better side than that. These Leinster rivals are split by two places and six points in the current table.
The Meath men would have been in the top four for Christmas but for the concession of a late penalty try to Old Crescent, which made it back-to-back defeats for Alan Kingsley’s charges. He has made two clever acquisitions in Kiwi back Vaa Mailei and former Division 1A out-half Willie Staunton.
Despite leaking over 50 points to MU Barnhall in the last round, Skerries took a number of positives forward from that game. They had some key men back from injury, including Conn Marrey and Michael Turvey, while full-back Conor Lennox, who only recently made his league debut, has scored three tries in as many games.
MU Barnhall (3rd) v Wanderers (4th), Parsonstown, 2pm
A key match for both clubs to win if they want to pursue home advantage in the promotion play-offs. This is third plays fourth and Wanderers, who have their game in hand against Belfast Harlequins next week, are chasing a season’s double over Barnhall.
Entertainment is guaranteed at Parsonstown as the Blue Bulls and the Chaps are among the division’s leading scorers, bagging ten try-scoring bonus points between them so far. Scores from Eoghan Clarke, Neil Hanratty, Joe Holland and Brian Quill saw the Dubliners prevail 27-13 in November’s clash.
Versatile Barnhall back Eoghan Quinn notched a hat-trick against Skerries in round 10, continuing his impressive run of form, while the Kildare outfit have been further boosted by the selection of Darren Hudson, last season’s captain, and lock Brendan McSorley in the preliminary Ireland Students squad for 2018.
Dungannon (6th) v Belfast Harlequins (9th), Stevenson Park (match postponed due to waterlogged pitch)
There were contrasting fortunes for Dungannon and Belfast Harlequins in the Ulster Premiership last week, with ‘Gannon’s confidence dented by a 22-15 loss to Omagh while Nicky Wells’ ‘Quins edged out divisional rivals Rainey Old Boys by a single point.
Head coach Wells is set to add Matthew McKenzie and Mark Glover to the visitors’ back-line this afternoon, while retaining the same pack, led by captain Danny Annett. Dungannon will be much-changed, upwards of 12 squad changes are expected with Kiwi back rower Jonah Mau’u out of the country and props Sean O’Hagan and Rodney Barrett both out for the rest of the season.
This should be much more of a contest than November’s meeting at Deramore Park where Andy Hughes’ side emerged with a 41-8 bonus point victory. They had two tries apiece from ever-influential centre Paul Armstrong and lock Adam Batt, and are undefeated in the league since that day.
Rainey Old Boys (2nd) v City of Derry (10th), Hatrick Park
Rainey Old Boys have obvious ground to make up on Old Crescent, who have kept up their unblemished record at the summit, but they will be targeting maximum points over the next two weekends as they host two of the division’s strugglers, City of Derry and Sunday’s Well.
Jason Bloomfield and Josh McIlroy are the only absentees today for the second-placed Old Boys, who spoiled the official opening of the Craig Thompson Stadium in November by dishing out a 40-5 hammering to Trevor Will’s eager but inexperienced Derry team.
Will’s relegation-threatened squad, which has been hit by injuries, unavailability and a ‘flu bug of late, will have to dig deep. They are under increasing pressure after giving a walkover to Dungannon in the last round, and lacking the strength in depth of other clubs, they face a rebuilding mission in the months ahead.