Clubs’ entire seasons and more are on the line in eight win-or-bust promotion/relegation play-off semi-finals across the Ulster Bank League today. Home advantage could prove crucial in many of the outcomes.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: Saturday, April 21
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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DIVISION 1A PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (9th, Div 1A) v UCC (4th, Div 1B), Templeville Road, 2pm
Things may look bleak for St. Mary’s College after leaking 45 and 48 points respectively to Clontarf and Garryowen, but they have a number of players back available for this play-off, including fit-again centre Marcus O’Driscoll, David O’Connor, Jack Dilger, Sean Kearns and Terry Kennedy, fresh from Ireland Sevens duty.
Whether it will all click into place for Mary’s remains to be seen. They have had two years in the top flight since being Division 1B champions in 2015/16, while today’s visitors UCC have also advanced in that time, moving from Division 2A to challenging for a prized 1A berth.
The Cork students, in Brian Walsh’s first season in charge, have been one of the best teams to watch in the second tier, aided by the presence of Munster-capped duo Cian Bohane and John Poland. Captain Paul Kiernan (eight tries) and prop James French are two other players who have impressed of late, but their combined efforts may not be enough to dislodge what is sure to be a fiercely-determined Mary’s side.
BANBRIDGE (2nd, Div 1B) v BALLYNAHINCH (3rd, Div 1B), Rifle Park
While acknowledging that his charges have ‘done really, really well to get where we are’, Banbridge head coach Daniel Soper says they cannot let this opportunity to press for promotion slip. Last year’s Division 2A champions have fought hard for second place in the table and home advantage in this mouth-watering Ulster derby.
Bann will draw confidence from their two regular season victories over Ballynahinch – 20-10 at home and 29-14 away – and Josh Cromie returns on the wing this afternoon in place of the unavailable John Porter. ‘Hinch, who stuttered in the final rounds including a 16-13 home defeat to Old Belvedere last Saturday, have Ollie Loughead and Ulster’s Peter Browne back in the pack, while fellow provincial players Peter Nelson and Aaron Cairns need big games at half-back.
Cairns, who captains ‘Hinch from scrum half, said: “Banbridge have a very good squad, they are a tight-knit group of boys and they play good rugby. We’re going to have to go over there and probably play some of the best rugby of our season to get a result, and if that is what it’s going to take we will make every effort to do so.”
DIVISION 1B PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
UL BOHEMIANS (9th, Div 1B) v NENAGH ORMOND (4th, Div 2A), University of Limerick 4G pitch
An all-Munster match-up as UL Bohemians look to preserve their Division 1B status for another week at least. Christy Neilan’s Bohs were one win away from promotion to the top flight twelve months ago, but it has been an unforgiving 2017/18 campaign with eight losing bonus points in 11 defeats telling its own tale.
On the positive side, they scored heavily in beating Naas (29 points) a fortnight ago and then put 30 points on Banbridge in a narrow defeat. Nenagh Ormond have had their own defensive issues to iron out having leaked 43 points to newly-crowned Division 2A champions Malone. Four away wins on the roster should give Nenagh some hope of upsetting the odds.
Indeed, these clubs had a couple of early season tussles and Nenagh fared well, winning a Charity Cup semi-final 20-17 before losing a half-time lead in an 18-13 Munster Senior Cup first round exit to a Robbie Bourke-inspired Bohs. The goal-kicking accuracy of Bourke and Nenagh ace Clayton Stewart could have a big say in the outcome of today’s rematch.
HIGHFIELD (2nd, Div 2A) v CITY OF ARMAGH (3rd, Div 2A), Woodleigh Park, 3pm
If there was an Ulster Bank League award for consistency, Highfield would surely get it. The last four years under Tim Ryan has seen them twice finish top of Division 2B and twice claim second spot in Division 2A. They fell at the first hurdle in the play-offs last April, suffering a rare home defeat – 13-9 to Nenagh.
Visitors Armagh were promoted at the end of last season via the play-off route and extended their current campaign by winning 24-14 away to Greystones last Saturday. It was a crucial bonus point which got them into the play-offs, with Thomas Campbell, Robbie Faloon, Andrew Willis and Neil Faloon all touching down.
This game brings together two former professional players-turned-bright young coaches in the form of 33-year-old Ryan and Armagh’s Willie Faloon who is 31. The latter, who will be hoping to avenge 29-17 and 17-10 defeats to Highfield, said: “Results did go our way last week, but looking at the season overall, our boys deserved a play-off spot and we’re looking forward to the challenge ahead in Cork.”
DIVISION 2A PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
GREYSTONES (9th, Div 2A) v NAVAN (4th, Div 2B), Dr. Hickey Park, 2pm
It was a gut-wrenching final round for Greystones as two teams with much poorer scoring differences, Galwegians and Blackrock College, climbed above them with closing wins and consigned the Wicklow men to the play-offs. Their decision-making let them down against Armagh and they failed to capitalise on a second half sin-binning.
There were well-taken tries from Jack Keating and Andrew Kealy, the back-three being an obvious area of strength for ‘Stones with right winger Keating’s speed regularly causing problems for defences. Navan’s dominant scrum and a brilliant individual try from Robbie Waters were the highlights of their 20-15 loss to Belfast Harlequins last Saturday.
Given they were already assured of a play-off berth, Navan boss Alan Kingsley rested some front-line players with this game in mind. Experienced goal-kicker Willie ‘Wine Gum’ Staunton is a key man for last year’s Division 2C champions. Captain Bryan McKeever said: “Straight away we wanted to get up there (to the top four) and we set out our stall, and we’ve been pushing for that goal since day one of pre-season. Promotion is still on the cards. It’s great to have something to play for at the business end of the season.”
RAINEY OLD BOYS (2nd, Div 2B) v MU BARNHALL (3rd, Div 2B), Hatrick Park
Rainey Old Boys are the only club from outside of Leinster in this play-off quartet, and they have had a disappointing run-in with three defeats in the last four rounds. One of those reversals came against today’s opponents MU Barnhall who triumphed 25-3, avenging their 42-10 thumping from earlier in the campaign.
Barnhall had a player sent off in the first meeting and that had a big impact on a lopsided final scoreline. The Blue Bulls are very good going forward, their haul of 536 points making them the second best attackers in Division 2B behind runaway champions Old Crescent. Despite an injury-affected second half of the season, Rainey still finished with the second best defensive record – just behind Navan.
The Magherafelt club, who claimed promotion via the play-offs last term, has welcomed back scrum half Jason Bloomfield from injury but it remains to be seen if influential flanker Paul Pritchard will be fit for his first involvement since late January. Barnhall travel on the back of a 22-all draw with Sunday’s Well, which included a smashing try of the month contender from former Leinster winger Darren Hudson.
DIVISION 2B PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
BELFAST HARLEQUINS (9th, Div 2B) v MALAHIDE (4th, Div 2C), Deramore Park
This is a huge game in the context of both clubs’ futures as Belfast Harlequins are fighting to avoid a third successive relegation, while Malahide, who came up from the junior ranks as All-Ireland Provincial League champions last season, have earned themselves an immediate opportunity to move up another level.
With a weather-affected schedule, this is actually Harlequins’ fifth outing in as many weeks, and Nick Wells’ charges have built up some much-needed momentum thanks to victories over Skerries (56-33), City of Derry (56-17) and Navan (20-15) in the last three rounds. Flanker Jonny Siri has stood out with a couple of man-of-the-match performances, although full-back Mattie McKenzie, who is returning to New Zealand, is a big loss.
Rick Evans’ Malahide side were winless in the last three rounds, but still banked enough points to qualify for the play-offs. Speedy winger Marcus McAllister, who won the league’s try of the month award for March, picked up a dozen tries during the regular season, while former professionals Mike Ross and Danie Poolman have had some important contributions along the way.
OMAGH (2nd, Div 2C) v THOMOND (3rd, Div 2C), Thomas Mellon Playing Fields
Chasing promotion for a second year in a row, Omagh are set to field the same starting XV from last week’s 19-14 win over Bruff, a result which secured home advantage in the play-offs against third-placed Thomond. Hooker Philip Ewing, on his maiden start for the first team, showed well and is set to be retained.
Omagh and Thomond enjoyed a couple of ding-dong battles during the league phase, a late surge seeing the Tyrone men win a very entertaining tie 39-32 down in Limerick before losing 10-6 in January’s return match. Omagh boss Phil Marshall insisted: “That was a dreadful performance, but we have matured, become more solid in each unit, and have improved since. Hopefully we’ll have a dry day on Saturday to showcase the talents of both sides and allow us to play our fluent rugby.”
Thomond were well-beaten by new champions Sligo last weekend, going down by 37 points in Strandhill with their handling and discipline letting them down, but they are much better than that scoreline suggests. Darragh O’Neill and Ger Finucane provide plenty of attacking threat in the back-line, while talented 20-year-old out-half Evan Cusack has also delivered the goods, landing high-pressure kicks and scoring some opportunist tries.