A blanket of just four points covers the top eight clubs in Division 1B of the All-Ireland League at the moment. Saturday’s schedule is packed full of juicy encounters, including Bateman Cup finalists City of Armagh’s rematch with Banbridge.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, January 19
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYMENA (9th) v BUCCANEERS (10th), Eaton Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballymena: LLWLLLWWW; Buccaneers: LLWLLLWLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 74; Tries: Connor Smyth 4; Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 71; Tries: Darragh Corbett 4
Preview: Ballymena have hit an encouraging run of form with three successive league wins, including a 27-22 success at Buccaneers, qualification for the Ulster Senior Cup final and retention of top spot in the Ulster Premiership table.
Moving out of the bottom two is next on their list and Ulster’s Marcus Rea, Clive Ross and Ireland Under-20 call-up JJ McKee are set to start up front for the Braidmen tomorrow. Jordan Foster and Dean Reynolds fill the wing berths, with Darrell Montgomery moving to inside centre.
Despite slipping to the bottom rung, Buccaneers will not be panicking, especially after a solid performance from a depleted side in last week’s Bateman Cup semi-final in Armagh. They return north still without the injured Martin Staunton, Peter Claffey and Rory Moloney, but are hoping to have top scorer Luke Carty (71 points) back at number 10.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, January 28, 2017: Buccaneers 13 Ballymena 13, Dubarry Park; Saturday, December 15, 2018: Buccaneers 22 Ballymena 27, Dubarry Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballymena to win
CITY OF ARMAGH (2nd) v BANBRIDGE (7th), Palace Grounds
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: City of Armagh: LDWLWWLWW; Banbridge: LWWWLLWLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 42; Tries: Andrew Smyth 4; Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 58; Tries: Peter Cromie 6
Preview: A series of defensive errors from Banbridge were ruthlessly punished in last month’s game which Armagh won 15-14. An Andrew Willis effort in the corner, coupled with a set piece-inspired penalty try, saw Willie Faloon’s men prevail.
Faloon’s opposite number Simon McKinstry insisted: “Having Armagh again, it’s an early opportunity to show that we’re a better side than that. There’s some serious lessons to learn. The league’s only halfway through so we’ve still everything to play for.”
Captain Chris Colvin is due to return to action with Armagh team. Fellow centre Jonny Pollock faces a late fitness test. Bann’s Josh Cromie and Ben Thompson are doubtful, but Caleb Montgomery, Greg Jones, James Hume, and possibly Robert Lyttle, could bolster the visitors’ ranks.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, December 15, 2018: Banbridge 14 City of Armagh 15, Rifle Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: City of Armagh to win
MALONE (3rd) v BALLYNAHINCH (4th), Gibson Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Malone: WWLWWWLLL; Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 49; Tries: Ben McCaughey 3; Ballynahinch: Points: Hilton Gibbons 28; Tries: Rhys O’Donnell 5
Preview: Another cracking Ulster derby to whet appetites for the second half of the league campaign. These clubs met twice last month with Ballynahinch winning 11-7 in Division 1B and 21-13 in the Ulster Premiership, the latter result securing the Stevenson Shield.
After a poor run of results in December, Malone will be glad to welcome back fit-again back-three specialist Jack Owens, with Adam McBurney, Graham Curtis and Joe Dunleavy also set to be involved. The rested trio of Conall Boomer, Ollie Loughead and John Donnan should feature up front for Ballynahinch.
The returning Ross Adair has caught the eye for ‘Hinch, scoring two tries in the last three rounds and forming an industrious centre partnership with Robin Harte. Tom O’Toole’s release from Ulster would be a big boost, especially with Tommy O’Hagan and Kyle McCall nursing injuries.
Recent League Meetings – Friday, March 15, 2013: Ballynahinch 58 Malone 3, Ballymacarn Park; Saturday, December 15, 2018: Ballynahinch 11 Malone 7, Ballymacarn Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Malone to win
OLD BELVEDERE (8th) v NAAS (5th), Anglesea Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLWW; Naas: WWLWWLLLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 64; Tries: Jack Keating 5; Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 74; Tries: Andy Ellis 6
Preview: An early 10-point surge, including centre Tom Molony’s second try in as many games, guided Old Belvedere to a hard-fought 10-8 triumph at Naas last time out. Their captain Steve Crosbie reverts to inside centre tomorrow with Ireland Sevens international Sean Cribbin coming in at out-half.
Connor Owende and Karl Miller are ‘Belvo’s two changes up front as they chase their third straight win, a result which could catapult them back into the top half of the table. A lengthy injury list has hampered Naas of late, so the Christmas break came at a good time.
The Naas attack should be sharper at the Lodge as Peter Osborne and Andy Ellis, their leading points and try scorers with 74 points and six tries respectively, and flying right winger Fionn Higgins all return to the starting XV. Adam Coyle is the fourth change at tighthead prop.
Recent League Meetings – Friday, January 26, 2018: Naas 27 Old Belvedere 13, Forenaughts; Saturday, December 15, 2018: Naas 8 Old Belvedere 10, Forenaughts
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Naas to win
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (1st) v OLD WESLEY (6th), Templeville Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: St. Mary’s College: WLLWLWWWL; Old Wesley: WDLWLWLWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – St. Mary’s College: Points: Conor Dean 59; Tries: Myles Carey 3; Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 77; Tries: Paul Harte, Tom Kiersey 3 each
Preview: St. Mary’s held onto pole position despite losing 20-9 at Old Wesley last time out, showing just how congested the second tier standings are. Only two points separate sixth-placed Wesley from Mary’s ahead of their rematch.
Strong-carrying centre James O’Donovan has stood out in recent rounds for Wesley, scoring important tries in their back-to-back victories over Malone and Mary’s. He also touched down in their Leinster Senior League Division 2 final success against Greystones.
Mary’s missed the presence of skipper Marcus O’Driscoll, David Aspil and Liam Curran in the Donnybrook clash, and it will be interesting to see who is back available for the return tie. Their athletic young flanker Ronan Watters continues to show his quality, earning an Ireland U-20 squad place along with scrum half Cormac Foley.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, January 9, 2016: Old Wesley 14 St. Mary’s College 20, Donnybrook; Saturday, December 15, 2018: Old Wesley 20 St. Mary’s College 9, Energia Park, Donnybrook
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win