There will be five Munster clubs in the top flight of the Ulster Bank League next season after UCC’s historic promotion to Division 1A thanks to a hard-fought 15-10 win over a much-fancied Banbridge side at Rifle Park.
UCC will join recently-crowned Division 1B champions Shannon in making the jump up to the top tier, a huge achievement at the end of Brian Walsh’s first season in charge at the Mardyke. Tries in each half from flanker John Hodnett and captain Paul Kiernan steered the Cork students to an historic result.
UCC finished nine points behind Bann in the final table and have proven to be a bogey team for Daniel Soper’s men this year, with a win and draw against them in the league phase before yesterday’s second victory. Young place-kickers James Taylor and James Hume exchanged early penalties and, in a defence-dominated first half, Hodnett’s 37th-minute score, which saw him squeeze over in the left corner via Cian Bohane’s set-up, split the sides at the break – 8-3.
Banbridge had come from 24-12 down to overhaul Ballynahinch last Saturday, and they went the right way about repeating the trick with replacement Ryan Hughes piling over on the end of a monster maul in the 65th minute – much to the big home crowd’s delight.
Centre Hume’s conversion made it 10-8 to the Co. Down outfit, but the in-form Kiernan got on the end of a slick back-line move, with Bohane and Murray Linn having key contributions in the build-up, to reply just five minutes later, scoring his ninth and most important try of the campaign.
Taylor topped it off with the conversion and UCC, aided by the experience of Bohane and John Poland and the industry of Ireland Under-20 number 8 Jack O’Sullivan, doggedly held onto their advantage despite a frantic finish from Bann, last year’s Division 2A champions. As well as a boost to Munster club rugby, UCC’s promotion will see them join fellow University clubs, UCD and Dublin University, in Division 1A next term.
City of Armagh celebrated their second successive promotion after winning the Division 1B play-off final against Nenagh Ormond. Willie Faloon’s charges prevailed 33-23, capitalising on some costly mistakes by Nenagh either side of half-time. Armagh’s 19-year-old out-half Cormac Fox punished any indiscipline with an 18-point haul as Nenagh, who had a penalty try, one from captain John Healy and 11 points from Clayton Stewart’s boot, fell at the final hurdle for the second year in a row.
Armagh head coach Faloon, who watched Stuart Hooks and Robbie Faloon (2) run in tries, said afterwards: “We are all proud of the boys and the effort displayed today was a great credit to the club. Our defensive effort in the final ten minutes was crucial to secure the victory.”
Like Armagh, it was a day to remember for Navan who made it back-to-back promotions with a thrilling 16-14 success at Rainey Old Boys. Alan Kingsley’s side, who were champions of the bottom tier last season, gained entry into the Division 2A ranks thanks to sweetly-struck late conversion from out-half Willie ‘Wine Gum’ Staunton.
Rainey appeared to have the winning of the game when armed with a 14-9 lead heading into the final 10 minutes, but they missed a penalty and then a drop goal in their efforts to close it out. Navan worked their way downfield to score a levelling try via scrum pressure, and with the last kick of the contest, Staunton’s conversion from the wide on the right took his personal tally to 11 points and secured another prized promotion for the Meath men.
Belfast Harlequins avoided a third straight relegation, getting the better of Ulster rivals Omagh in a 26-20 home win which keeps them up in Division 2B. Accies full-back Ali Beckett’s try before half-time gave the underdogs a 13-7 advantage, with the hosts having a man in the sin-bin for a high tackle.
However, ‘Quins outscored Omagh by three tries to one in the second half as prop Rory Harrison, who crossed from a lineout maul, replacement winger James McConnell and centre Mark Gribben all touched down. Winger Matty Eccles hit back late on for Omagh, but they were unable to gather the kick-off and Nick Wells’ men held onto their lead.
Ballina are back in the Ulster Bank League for the first time since 2005 after completing a superb clean sweep of victories in the All-Ireland Provincial League Championship. Coached by David Newman and JP Leonard, the Moy men held onto top spot and claimed automatic promotion with a 29-19 dismissal of Ulster Bank Junior Cup champions Ashbourne.
Conor Mason’s second-minute try set them on their way at Milltown House, with number 8 Daniel Molloy bagging a brace and centre Calum Quinn also touching down. The strong-carrying Molloy has arguably been Ballina’s player of the series and he completed his hat-trick late on, taking his tally for the three-round qualifiers to seven tries in all.
Centre Kerry Desmond’s last-gasp try, adding to earlier second half scores from replacement Gearoid O’Leary and number 8 Tom Ferguson, guided Bandon to a hard-fought 21-17 success at home to Instonians. The west Cork outfit finished as runners-up to Ballina and will travel to Bruff for next Saturday’s crunch play-off clash, with the winners gaining the final place in Division 2C for next season. It was a bumper day for Bandon whose Under-18s were crowned All-Ireland Cup champions.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE RESULTS: Saturday, April 28
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DIVISION 1A PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF FINAL:
BANBRIDGE 10 UCC 15, Rifle Park
Scorers: Banbridge: Try: Ryan Hughes; Con: James Hume; Pen: James Hume
UCC: Tries: John Hodnett, Paul Kiernan; Con: James Taylor; Pen: James Taylor
HT: Banbridge 3 UCC 8
BANBRIDGE: Adam Ervine (capt); Conor Field, Andrew Morrison, James Hume, John Porter; Jonny Little, Jason Gribben; Eric O’Sullivan, Peter Cromie, Michael Cromie, Chris Allen, Stephen Irvine, Caleb Montgomery, Nick Hayes, Greg Jones.
Replacements: Jonny Weir, Stuart Cromie, Mike Bentley, Ryan Hughes, Neil Kilpatrick, Josh Cromie, Ben Carson.
UCC: Richard Walsh; Murray Linn, Paul Kiernan (capt), Peter Sylvester, Cian Bohane; James Taylor, John Poland; Bryan O’Connor, Tadgh McCarthy, Rob O’Donovan, Cian Barry, Darragh Moloney, Daire Feeney, John Hodnett, Jack O’Sullivan.
Replacements: Travis Coomey, James French, Charlie Slowey, Brian O’Mahony, Lee McSherry, Kevin Slater, Andrew Dorgan.
DIVISION 1B PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF FINAL:
City of Armagh 33 Nenagh Ormond 23, Palace Grounds
DIVISION 2A PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF FINAL:
Rainey Old Boys 14 Navan 16, Hatrick Park
DIVISION 2B PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF FINAL:
Belfast Harlequins 26 Omagh 20, Deramore Park
ALL-IRELAND PROVINCIAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP – ROUND 3:
Ashbourne 19 Ballina 29, Milltown House
Bandon 21 Instonians 17, Old Chapel