Highfield’s late win over Malone last week kept the Division 2A title race alive for today’s final round, but the Cregagh Red Sox are still in the box seat and just 80 minutes away from automatic promotion to the second tier. In the lower reaches, it will be either Corinthians or their Galway city rivals, Galwegians, who fall through the relegation trapdoor.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 2A: Saturday, April 14
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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Blackrock College (8th) v Highfield (2nd), Stradbrook
Highfield just love final round drama. Two years ago they pipped City of Derry to the Division 2B title on scoring difference thanks to a big bonus point win over Bective Rangers. Last week’s 26-24 victory over leaders Malone means the Corkmen still have a shot at being crowned Division 2A champions today and winning automatic promotion.
Tim Ryan’s men have three points to make up on Malone who are hosting fourth-placed Nenagh Ormond at the same time. Highfield’s trip to Blackrock could see them finish with a 15th league win and a 10th try-scoring bonus point – and still not finish top of the table. Their 67 points would have been enough to win Division 2A the last two years.
Blackrock have their own business to take care of as they are perilously close to ending up second-from-bottom and facing the dreaded play-offs. Mick Carroll’s side have been scoring well of late, but defence remains a glaring issue with an average of 28 points conceded per game. They will need to lay down a marker up front against a battle-hardened Highfield pack.
Galwegians (9th) v Cashel (3rd), Crowley Park
Relegation-threatened Galwegians pulled off a huge away win at City of Armagh last Saturday. Young out-half Morgan Codyre emerged as the hero, converting Bryan Dixon’s try and landing the decisive 81st-minute penalty in a gutsy 39-36 success. Club legend John ‘Luigi’ Cleary, who bagged the bonus point score, recently came out of retirement to aid ‘Wegians’ efforts to stay in the third tier.
Those five points gained in Armagh are the difference between Brian McClearn’s charges, in ninth place, and local rivals Corinthians who occupy the bottom rung. Depending on how Corinthians fare away to Queen’s University, Galwegians can avoid automatic relegation with a positive result at home to Cashel. The Blues could yet clamber over Blackrock and Greystones, who are only a point above them, in the final standings.
Third-placed Cashel need just one more point to guarantee their place in the promotion play-offs. Another winning performance, on the back of last week’s 27-24 triumph over ‘Rock, would do nicely. Denis Leamy’s squad have timed their top-four challenge nicely. Their scrum is a big weapon, forcing two penalty tries last time out, although injuries to James Ryan and Ed Leamy, who damaged his knee, have come at the wrong time of the season.
Greystones (7th) v City of Armagh (5th), Dr. Hickey Park
The two promoted clubs from last season renew rivalries, with Greystones look to secure their divisional safety with a third win in four games. For Armagh, who were the early season pacesetters, they need a five-point return by the Co. Wicklow coastline in order to dislodge either Cashel or Nenagh and progress to the promotion play-offs.
Winger Paudie Geoghegan was ‘Stones’ star man in their vital 26-23 victory away to Corinthians, scoring two tries and kicking a key drop goal in the closing stages. In contrasts, Armagh were hugely frustrated to lose their grip on a 31-19 half-time lead against Galwegians, eventually going down by three points to the westerners in a 75-point thriller.
While scoring has not been a problem for Armagh with 13 tries scores in the last two rounds, Willie Faloon’s men have leaked eight in that time and cannot afford to give similar latitude to the likes of Geoghegan and fellow wing Jack Keating. The Ulstermen need to be firing on all cylinders at both ends of the pitch, and are boosted this week by the return of full-back Tim McNiece and back rower Stuart Hooks.
Malone (1st) v Nenagh Ormond (4th), Gibson Park
Malone had to move on quickly from their disappointing finish against Highfield, as the concession of a late converted try prevented the Cregagh Red Sox from sealing top spot with one round still to go. Still, they have a three-point cushion over their nearest rivals and a enviable opportunity to win the league in front of their home support.
Nenagh Ormond will certainly put it up to them, though, as they are in possession of fourth place (on 49 points) and desperate to fight off any late possibility of Armagh (44) pipping them to a play-off berth. The Tipperary outfit could have been challenging for league honours but they lost five of their seven games since the turn of the year.
A much tighter margin is expected than Malone’s 37-7 success against Nenagh in September’s opening round. Ulster’s Jack Owens and Joe Dunleavy, who both started against Highfield, are available again this week along with provincial colleague Matthew Dalton. Peter Cooper and Graham Curtis, a recent Ireland Under-19 debutant at scrum half, remain absent through injury.
Queen’s University (6th) v Corinthians (10th), Dub Lane
Graham Curtis’ older brother, Ireland Under-20 centre Angus Curtis, is among the Ulster releases for Queen’s final round clash with bottom-placed Corinthians. Fellow Academy players Alexander Clarke and Jonny Stewart are also available again after featuring off the bench in last week’s crucial 35-30 win away to Nenagh Ormond. Scrum half Stewart was one of the five scorers, while out-half Richie McMaster finished with 15 points.
That result secured the Belfast students’ Division 2A status for another year, but they will want to keep up that winning momentum in what is their rugby consultant Neil Doak’s final match with Queen’s before his move back into the professional ranks as Worcester Warriors’ new attack and backs coach.
Captained by former Ireland Under-20 international Dave Panter from full-back, Corinthians need some last-ditch heroics to avoid a straight drop down to Division 2B. Luck has not been on their side in defeats to Highfield and Greystones by the narrowest of margins – two points and one point respectively. Out-half Kieran Joyce is one of the talented Connacht Academy players at their disposal, while senior-capped forward Cillian Gallagher was used off the bench last week.