It promises to be a battle royal between Bruff and Bandon at Kilballyowen Park as the Limerick men try to hold onto their Ulster Bank League status, while the west Cork side will make an historic leap out of the junior ranks if they win.
ULSTER BANK LEAGUE: DIVISION 2C PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF: Saturday, May 5
BRUFF (9th, Div 2C) v BANDON (2nd, Round Robin Series), Kilballyowen Park, 2.30pm
Enduring a hugely frustrating end to the regular season, Bruff finished just one victory away from safety with their inferior scoring difference leaving them second-from-bottom, just behind Tullamore. So it is now win-or-bust for a proud club that initially gained promotion in 2004.
Bruff have been a fixture across a number of divisions since then, but Brian Cahill’s current crop found the going tough in the bottom tier this year. Missing a much-needed streak of consistency, they went from drawing with eventual champions Sligo and defeating local rivals Thomond to losing to fellow teams in the lower reaches.
Sadly, long-serving hooker and captain John Hogan can only watch from the sidelines as Bruff’s survival mission plays out. He had to retire earlier in the campaign due to a neck injury, and while Cahill has a mostly young squad, he can call on the experience of his brother, out-half Tony, prop Dave Horan (younger brother of Marcus) and lock Neilus Keogh, the former Ireland Under-20 Grand Slam winner.
Bruff’s narrow loss at promotion-chasing Omagh three weeks ago, combined with their prior defeat of Bective Rangers, suggests that they can pull off the required result today, especially with the backing off the home support. However, Bandon will not be daunted by the challenge having gained momentum through their runners-up finish in the All-Ireland Provincial League Championship.
Back-to-back wins over Ashbourne (55-26) and Instonians (21-17), with a try-scoring bonus point also earned against eventual Round Robin winners Ballina, have Regis Sonnes’ Corkmen on the cusp of an historic breakthrough into the Ulster Bank League.
Frenchman Sonnes is leaving the club to return to Toulouse as their joint-head coach next season, so the players are determined to send him off in style. Bandon captain Tom Ferguson told the Southern Star: “We had a massive crowd supporting us at Old Chapel last week and also up in Mullingar for our Under-18s’ All-Ireland final win.
“It is unbelievable to have that kind of backing and support behind us, so hopefully we can go on and do the business against Bruff. I think it is an advantage for us in a way that the play-off is against another Munster team in Bruff. A lot of Munster teams play similarly and we are playing away to those teams all year.”
Bruff will have to keep close tabs on the visitors’ Argentinian scrum half Santiago Gonzalez and former Cork Constitution centre Kerry Desmond, who struck for a late match-winning try against Inst seven days ago. Bandon’s back row are also a very strong unit, with number 8 Ferguson combining well with Kiwi recruit Conall Bromwich and Ryan Hayes.
Bandon are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Omagh who won the corresponding play-off fixture last year, coming away from Boyne with a 29-9 triumph and the ultimate prize of a ticket to the Ulster Bank League. Bruff can look to Sligo for inspiration as they recently won the Division 2C title – a little under two years on from their 24-22 promotion/relegation play-off win over junior challengers Enniscorthy.