The top four clubs in Ulster Bank League Division 2B are all on their travels today, with leaders Old Crescent putting their unbeaten record on the line at Skerries and second-placed Rainey Old Boys returning to Lansdowne Road where they won the All-Ireland Junior Cup 12 years ago.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 2B: Saturday, February 3
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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Belfast Harlequins (9th) v Sunday’s Well (8th), Deramore Park
Belfast Harlequins have not had many reasons to be cheerful but they have been looking increasingly competitive of late, and home advantage may spur them on today to their first win of the season. They scored two tries last week against leaders Old Crescent, including number 8 Toby Mannus’ third score in four games.
They have a 10-point gap to make up on third-from-bottom Sunday’s Well, with a rescheduled clash with Dungannon to follow next Saturday. ‘Quins will look for Christian Bennison and Mark Gribben to get over the gain-line in midfield, while back rowers Jaz Andress, Daryl Marshall and Mannus will need to be at their dynamic best.
However, the ‘Well make the north trip on the back of their best performance of the season, having stung Navan 10-0 in Cork. Hooker and former captain Kieran Stokes scored a late clinching try against the Meath men, ending their six-match losing run in the process.
City of Derry (10th) v Navan (4th), Craig Thompson Stadium, Judge’s Road
MU Barnhall showed no mercy to bottom side City of Derry last time out, putting 73 points on Trevor Will’s side who are in desperate need of some light at the end of the tunnel. Their only hope of avoiding automatic relegation may hinge on games against the ‘Well (March 3) and Harlequins (April 7).
As for now, it is very difficult to see top-four outfit Navan not picking up maximum points this afternoon. They will want to right the wrongs of their 10-0 reversal in Cork last week, a scrappy contest in which the Meath men struggled to build phases and outmanoeuvre the home defence.
Derry hooker and captain David Ferguson will rally his troops as they look to salvage some pride after leaking a total of 144 points in the last two rounds. With Wanderers close behind them, Navan will be highly motivated to notch win number seven and pocket their fourth try-scoring bonus point of the campaign.
Dungannon (6th) v MU Barnhall (3rd), Stevenson Park
After a disrupted spell with no league fixtures either side of Christmas, Dungannon kept up their winning form with a well-judged 24-17 victory away to Wanderers. Out-half Chris Swash, who misses today’s game against MU Barnhall, struck for the decisive try in Dublin after the ball had gone loose from a tackle.
Conor McGeough will take the reins at number 10 for the visit of the Blue Bulls, a team that ‘Gannon boss Andy Hughes rates highly. They are in free-scoring form after running an eye-watering 11 tries past beleaguered Derry, with five-try flanker Paul Nalty leading the scoring at Craig Thompson Stadium.
The battle for back row supremacy will be one to keep tabs on, as Jonah Mau’u and former captain James McMahon have been standout performers in their positions for Dungannon, and Barnhall have a well-balanced loose forward trio led by experienced number 8 Tom McKeown, who got his name on the scoresheet in Derry.
Skerries (7th) v Old Crescent (1st), Holmpatrick
Skerries ended their three-month wait for a league win – and did so in fine style with a terrific solo try from winger Paul Devitt whose pace, combined with three brilliant hand-offs, was too much for the Rainey Old Boys defence. The Goats ran out 20-13 winners, with returning former captain Ross McAuley and current skipper Mikey Sherlock leading by example.
Having lowered the colours of the division’s second-placed team, Skerries now host the unbeaten leaders as they look to gain some revenge for November’s 45-0 hammering by Old Crescent. The margins are usually tighter when Crescent are on the road – their last two trips resulted in winning margins of just one and two points.
With player-coaches Brendan Guilfoyle and Brian Tuohy still wielding plenty of influence on the pitch, Crescent will be determined to put in a big performance to mark the sad passing this week of Cyril Downes, a former captain and President of the Limerick club and an ex-Munster Branch President.
Wanderers (5th) v Rainey Old Boys (2nd), Aviva Stadium back pitch
Two of the losing teams from the last round have an immediate chance to make amends. Captained by Eoghan Nihill from the back row, Wanderers do not lose many matches at home, but second-placed Rainey may prove too strong here as they target a repeat of November’s 32-18 victory over the Chaps.
What will give Wanderers added hope is the injury-enforced absence of key Rainey forwards Brad Roberts and Paul Pritchard, with the latter sustaining a nasty head injury away to Skerries. Michael Nevin did a good job in deputising for Roberts at hooker and will need to keep that up in the coming weeks.
It was a game of two halves when Rainey hosted Wanderers in an entertaining tie earlier in the season, the Dubliners having the better of the opening 40 minutes before John Andrews’ Rainey turned things around with four tries in all, including number 8 Jody McMurray’s late bonus point effort after he broke on the narrow side of a five-metre scrum.