The freshened up line-up in All-Ireland League Division 1B includes a quintet of Ulster clubs and four new head coaches dotted around the promotion hopefuls. The match of the day sees Ulster rivals Ballymena and Malone battling it out at Eaton Park.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, October 6
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYMENA v MALONE, Eaton Park
Preview: The first Ulster derby of the new Division 1B campaign – and there will be plenty more of them – sees Malone, last year’s Division 2A champions, pitch up to Ballymena. The sides have already met this season in both the Ulster Senior Cup and Ulster Premiership with one win apiece (Ballymena 33-27 at home and Malone 46-17 at home).
Ballymena winger Jonny McMullan touched down three times across those two matches, and some of the Braidmen’s ‘ins’ in the backs division include versatile back Tim Small, who returns from a spell with French club Aurillac, New Zealander Scott Willoughby and Ireland Sevens flyer Robert Baloucoune.
Andy Graham’s men will be targeting improvements to their scrum, breakdown and discipline from recent outings, while his Malone counterpart Paddy Armstrong, who is supported by Ulster’s Chris Henry and Alan O’Connor in specialist advisory coaching roles, is waiting to see who will be available of their provincial quartet – Jack Owens, Peter Cooper, Matthew Dalton and Joe Dunleavy.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, November 8, 2014: Ballymena 7 Malone 13, Eaton Park; Saturday, February 28, 2015: Malone 10 Ballymena 13, Gibson Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Malone to win
BUCCANEERS v NAAS, Dubarry Park
Preview: New Buccaneers head coach Peter O’Donnell’s previous spell as an assistant as Naas should help him prepare for his first league game with the Pirates. His own assistant coach in Athlone is backs supremo Aidan Wynne, the 30-year-old former Connacht centre who has rejoined Buccs from Tullamore.
Buccaneers did the double on the Kildare men two seasons ago, but Johne Murphy’s charges did well to stay up last term. Murphy, Fionn Carr, Fionn Higgins and ace goal-kicker Peter Osborne continue to wield influence behind a scrum that is boosted by returning former Ireland Under-20 prop Adam Coyle.
Captain Shane Layden is unfortunately injured for Buccs’ league opener. His team’s confidence is on the up after securing their fourth Connacht Senior League title in-a-row and they welcome back athletic lock Rory Moloney from a successful period playing in New Zealand, and Craig Ronaldson’s younger brother Hugh is also part of the squad.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, October 1, 2016: Naas 16 Buccaneers 24, Forenaughts; Saturday, March 25, 2017: Buccaneers 30 Naas 23, Dubarry Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Naas to win
CITY OF ARMAGH v OLD WESLEY, Palace Grounds
Preview: Back-to-back promotions have earned City of Armagh their place in Division 1B, but they expect ‘a steep learning curve’ with three crunch Ulster derbies in the first five rounds. With no Ulster allocations this season, Willie Faloon continues to promote from within and develop some enviable homegrown talent.
Scoring difference is all that separated Old Wesley from an almighty scrap in the relegation play-offs last season, so they are hoping that a fresh start coincides with improved results. They have booked their place in the Leinster Senior League Division 2 final, with former UCC pair Paul Derham and Tom Kiersey among the new recruits.
Second row Nigel Simpson and scrum half Gerard Treanor have joined Armagh from Queen’s, with Simpson having captained the Belfast students last year. The Armagh-born Faloon, who only turned 32 last Sunday, has shown himself to be one of the best young coaches in the league, and a winning Division 1B debut would further enhance that.
Recent League Meetings – N/A
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: City of Armagh to win
OLD BELVEDERE v BANBRIDGE, Anglesea Road
Preview: It was all change at Old Belvedere over the summer with Andy Kenny, the club’s Under-20 head coach, replacing Eddie O’Sullivan in the senior hot seat. Former Connacht out-half Steve Crosbie is putting his stamp on the back-line as player-backs coach, while Greystones speedster Jack Keating and centre Jamie McAleese, fresh from a season in the Stade Francais underage set-up, are canny additions.
With Daniel Soper now employed by Ulster as skills coach, the New Zealander has taken a step back at Banbridge. Simon McKinstry heads up Bann’s coaching team which also includes former Ulster and Ireland prop Simon Best. Hooker Peter Cromie has been released from Ulster ‘A’ duty to start tomorrow, although captain Michael Cromie (fractured hand) is a notable absentee.
These sides exchanged home victories last season with Bann triumphing 15-14 at Rifle Park thanks to winger Conor Field’s early second half try. Belvedere gained revenge with an 18-15 success at their Dublin 4 base after Christmas, the key score being out-half Tim Foley’s 76th-minute drop goal.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, November 11, 2017: Banbridge 15 Old Belvedere 14, Rifle Park; Saturday, January 6, 2018: Old Belvedere 18 Banbridge 15, Anglesea Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Belvedere to win
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE v BALLYNAHINCH, Templeville Road
Preview: Having dropped down from the top flight, this is a very important season for St. Mary’s who hand the head coach reins to Steven Hennessy, who is assisted by Jamie Cornett, Barry Lynn and Rob Sweeney. Early season wins over Naas (25-17) and UCD (22-17) bode well, although local rivals Terenure clipped their wings, handing them a 39-19 defeat.
Ballynahinch have added Kiwi out-half/centre Hilton Gibbons to their playing ranks, and he is expected to be available tomorrow despite picking up a recent injury. They have had forwards Bradley Luney and Campbell Classon training with Ulster ‘A’, while props Tom O’Toole and Tommy O’Hagan are also part of their Ulster allocation.
Brian McLaughlin’s men fell at the penultimate hurdle last season with their promotion bid scuppered by Banbridge. This is their first trip to Templeville Road since February 2015 when Mary’s chalked up a 32-25 success, the side sharing eight tries that day with prop Brian McGovern’s 65th-minute score the decisive one.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, November 1, 2014: Ballynahinch 33 St. Mary’s College 13, Ballymacarn Park; Saturday, February 21, 2015: St. Mary’s College 32 Ballynahinch 25, Templeville Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: St. Mary’s College to win