Malone and their chief chasers, Old Wesley and City of Armagh, are all on the road this weekend as All-Ireland League Division 1B enters its final six rounds. Second-placed Wesley, who travel to Ballymena, are aiming to complete the full set of five wins in Ulster.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, February 23
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYMENA (10th) v OLD WESLEY (2nd), Eaton Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballymena: LLWLLLWWWLLL; Old Wesley: WDLWLWLWWWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 96; Tries: Connor Smyth 4; Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 109; Tries: Tom Kiersey 4
Preview: Ballymena’s tiring defence was ruthlessly punished last week as Old Belvedere put 52 points and eight tries on them. They should have a stronger line-up tomorrow with props Nacho Cladera Crespo and Chris Cundell returning along with lock David Whann.
Rodger McBurney (calf) and Mark Foster (head injury) are sidelined, but the Braidmen’s top try scorer Connor Smyth could get clearance to play following a bout of glandular fever. He was their lone try scorer in November’s 27-16 loss at Old Wesley.
Second-placed Wesley could achieve a fantastic full set of five wins in Ulster, their latest success up north coming just last Saturday in Armagh (19-17). Their full-back Rory Stynes’ reliable right boot has seen him top the division’s scoring charts with 109 points.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, April 14, 2018: Ballymena 22 Old Wesley 21, Eaton Park; Saturday, November 24, 2018: Old Wesley 27 Ballymena 16, Energia Park, Donnybrook
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win
BANBRIDGE (4th) v BALLYNAHINCH (6th), Rifle Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Banbridge: LWWWLLWLLWWL; Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWLWLWL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 78; Tries: Peter Cromie 7; Ballynahinch: Points: Rhys O’Donnell 30; Tries: Rhys O’Donnell 6
Preview: Familiar foes Banbridge and Ballynahinch, who were both beaten in the last round, lock horns at Rifle Park. Bann are set to make four changes from their 22-15 defeat to leaders Malone, including scrum half Ian Porter’s first start since returning from injury.
Forwards Jonny Murphy, Chris Allen and Ethan Harbinson also come in, although lock Allen is doubtful with his wife expecting a child. Boosted by the returning James Simpson and Rory Butler, Ballynahinch are expected to field a similar side after losing narrowly to Wesley.
Bann head coach Simon McKinstry said: “It was a disappointing result against Malone, we’d a lot of knock-ons and unforced errors. Ballynahinch is another tough one. But we’re still in the hunt and as long as that’s the case we’ll be battling for every point.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, April 21, 2018: Banbridge 28 Ballynahinch 24, Rifle Park; Saturday, November 24, 2018: Ballynahinch 13 Banbridge 12, Ballymacarn Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Banbridge to win
BUCCANEERS (9th) v ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (7th), Dubarry Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Buccaneers: LLWLLLWLLWWL; St. Mary’s College: WLLWLWWWLLLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 96; Tries: Darragh Corbett, Shane Layden, Simon Meagher 4 each; St. Mary’s College: Points: Conor Dean 59; Tries: Hugo Conway 4
Preview: Buccaneers’ tally of five losing bonus points tells its own tale, with the Pirates’ latest reversal seeing them foiled by Armagh number 8 Neil Faloon’s last-gasp try last Saturday. This weekend’s visitors, St. Mary’s, also pipped them (34-32) in November.
They have lost lock Joe Maksymiw, one of their best players in round 12, to the Connacht bench, while Simon Meagher, who has bagged four tries from flanker, is their main injury concern. Props Conan O’Donnell and Conor Kenny should hopefully return tomorrow.
Mary’s halted a three-match losing run with a craftily-carved out 18-11 victory over Naas. Man-of-the-match Nick McCarthy produced a big performance at the breakdown, which will be a key area again as the Dubliners look to repeat their December 2017 win at the midlands venue (22-6).
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, December 9, 2017: Buccaneers 6 St. Mary’s College 22, Dubarry Park; Saturday, November 24, 2018: St. Mary’s College 34 Buccaneers 32, Templeville Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Buccaneers to win
NAAS (5th) v MALONE (1st), Forenaughts
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Naas: WWLWWLLLLWDL; Malone: WWLWWWLLLWWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 108; Tries: Andy Ellis 7; Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 75; Tries: Rory Campbell 4
Preview: Despite falling out of the top four, Naas picked up a losing bonus point at Mary’s to limit the damage. They will hope to be sharper at home tomorrow, particularly in attack where their decision-making let them down last week.
Leaders Malone are looking to build on their impressive second half showing in the Banbridge game. Their back-line is slightly altered for tomorrow with Andy Bryans shifting to full-back, Mark O’Connor coming in on the wing and Shane Kelly at scrum half.
Front rowers Dan Kerr and Ricky Greenwood, along with lock Michael Shiels, complete the five personnel changes made by the Cregagh Red Sox. They have won three on the bounce in 2019 so far and outscored Naas by five tries to three in November’s clash.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 26, 2016: Malone 8 Naas 25, Gibson Park; Saturday, November 24, 2018: Malone 36 Naas 20, Gibson Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Malone to win
OLD BELVEDERE (8th) v CITY OF ARMAGH (3rd), Anglesea Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLWWLLW; City of Armagh: LDWLWWLWWLDW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 89; Tries: Jack Keating 8; City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 65; Tries: Andrew Smyth 4
Preview: Old Belvedere’s finest attacking performance of the season saw them break the 50-point mark against Ballymena and move out of the bottom two. Notching his eighth try, Ireland Club XV winger Jack Keating is out in front again as the division’s leading try scorer.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Belvo head coach Andy Kenny has named an unchanged team which includes the powerful front row unit of James Bollard, Ed Rossiter and bulldozing Hawaiian-Samoan tighthead Roman Salanoa.
Armagh’s hard-fought win over Buccs came at a cost with Andrew Willis’ early knee injury expected to rule him out for three weeks. Evin Crummie replaces him on the wing. Number 8 Neil Faloon’s match-winning try last Saturday was his third score in as many games.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, November 24, 2018: City of Armagh 15 Old Belvedere 9, Palace Grounds
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: City of Armagh to win