Having edged their way to the top of the Division 1B table, Old Wesley could steal a march on their promotion rivals by winning Saturday’s early kick-off. Elsewhere, two of the top four teams meet at Ballymacarn Park where Brian McLaughlin’s Ballynahinch battle it out with Johne Murphy’s Cobras from Naas.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, March 2
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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OLD WESLEY (1st) v BANBRIDGE (5th), Energia Park, 1.15pm
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Wesley: WDLWLWLWWWLWW; Banbridge: LWWWLLWLLWWLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 126; Tries: Tom Kiersey, Paul Harte 4 each; Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 78; Tries: Peter Cromie 7
Preview: An early kick-off in Donnybrook as Old Wesley, the latest team to lead an extremely congested promotion race, entertain fifth-placed Banbridge. Bann were top of the table when Wesley won 15-8 at Rifle Park in November, thanks to Lachlan Anderson and Tom Kiersey’s first half tries.
It took a robust defensive performance to see out that result, and Wesley head coach Morgan Lennon knows they will have to bring a physical edge in this return match – especially as Banbridge are a wounded animal after back-to-back defeats to Ulster rivals Malone and Ballynahinch.
Injuries to Hugo Harbinson (hand) and Josh Cromie (ankle) are covered by Adam Ervine and Ulster’s Jonny Stewart in the Bann back-line. Stewart’s selection at scrum half sees Ian Porter switch to number 10, while returning lock Chris Allen is partnered by Stevie Irvine whose regular number 8 berth is filled by Ulster youngster Greg Jones.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, January 27, 2018: Banbridge 18 Old Wesley 12, Rifle Park; Saturday, November 3, 2018: Banbridge 8 Old Wesley 15, Rifle Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win
BALLYNAHINCH (4th) v NAAS (3rd), Ballymacarn Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWLWLWLW; Naas: WWLWWLLLLWDLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballynahinch: Points: Rhys O’Donnell 30; Tries: Rhys O’Donnell 6; Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 115; Tries: Andy Ellis 8
Preview: Ballynahinch and Naas both got back to winning ways last week, climbing back into the top four. The Cobras claimed the scalp of leaders Malone with Andy Ellis running in his eighth try of the campaign – a first half intercept – and Peter Osborne landing the match-winning penalty in injury-time.
With 22-year-old tighthead Adam Coyle and Connacht flanker James Connolly (25), the Kildare men pack a punch up front and they were 27-14 winners of the sides’ November encounter. ‘Hinch are without second row James Simpson tomorrow, but can bank on the try-scoring threat of Ross Adair and captain Aaron Cairns who, between them, have scored six tries in the last seven rounds.
‘Hinch back rower Conall Boomer told Irish Rugby TV: “The league is so tight – with the results, you never know what’s going to happen. There’s no reason why we can’t go on and win it. Our attitude was very good against Banbridge, something which we’ve lacked in recent games. We cut out the mistakes (in the second half), got into our shape and pattern and we were grand from there.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 3, 2018: Naas 24 Ballynahinch 27, Forenaughts; Saturday, November 3, 2018: Naas 27 Ballynahinch 14, Forenaughts
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballynahinch to win
CITY OF ARMAGH (7th) v BALLYMENA (10th), Palace Grounds
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: City of Armagh: LDWLWWLWWLDWL; Ballymena: LLWLLLWWWLLLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 65; Tries: Andrew Smyth 4; Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 98; Tries: Connor Smyth 5
Preview: The front row crisis eases for City of Armagh, who were well-beaten at Old Belvedere last Saturday. Philip Fletcher, Andrew Smyth, Eoin O’Hagan and Oisin Kiernan are all back available this week, although injuries continue to rule out backs Andrew Willis, Ryan Purvis and Harry Boyd.
They will be expecting a backlash from bottom side Ballymena who are desperate for a derby win after shipping a combined 109 points against ‘Belvo and Wesley. The Braidmen have been coping with their own injuries, with opportunity knocking for 18-year-old debutant number 8 Phil Campbell who is set to retain his place.
Bruce Houston’s absence at out-half due to concussion will be covered by Tim Small, Ballymena’s leading scorer with 98 points, while Andy Graham is hoping to have promising youngster JJ McKee back to full fitness. He could come into the engine room alongside Connor Smyth, their lone try scorer in the Wesley game.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, November 3, 2018: Ballymena 13 City of Armagh 22, Eaton Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: City of Armagh to win
MALONE (2nd) v BUCCANEERS (9th), Gibson Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Malone: WWLWWWLLLWWWL; Buccaneers: LLWLLLWLLWWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 75; Tries: Rory Campbell, Peter Cooper 4 each; Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 100; Tries: Darragh Corbett, Shane Layden, Simon Meagher 4 each
Preview: Malone won by the minimum margin when these sides met in Athlone four months ago, the lead changing hands seven times and Buccaneers left to rue their failure to take on a late drop goal attempt. It was Naas’ last-gasp penalty goal which knocked the Ulstermen off the summit last week.
Winger Chris Jordan and scrum half Graham Curtis, an Ireland Under-20 hopeful this season, come in as two of Malone’s changes from the Naas match. Ulster prop Ross Kane is also set to start and 20-year-old Academy back rower Joe Dunleavy, lining out at number 8, is earning rave reviews from the club’s coaches.
Buccs have the fit-again Darragh Corbett and Peter Claffey back in the mix for their final trip of the regular season to Ulster. Connacht’s Eoghan Masterson, who has scored three tries in his last two appearances, is enjoying a run of games with the Pirates, especially as his younger brother Sean, the 21-year-old Academy forward, is also starting.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, December 20, 2014: Buccaneers 32 Malone 14, Dubarry Park; Saturday, November 3, 2018: Buccaneers 23 Malone 24, Dubarry Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Malone to win
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (8th) v OLD BELVEDERE (6th), Templeville Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: St. Mary’s College: WLLWLWWWLLLWL; Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLWWLLWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – St. Mary’s College: Points: Conor Dean 59; Tries: Hugo Conway 4; Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 103; Tries: Jack Keating 9
Preview: This is a tough one to call as Old Belvedere have really clicked into gear, enjoying big wins over Ballymena and Armagh, while St. Mary’s have won five out of six at home so far this season. Mary’s will have been working hard on their maul defence after leaking three tries to Buccs from forward drives.
Although both sides need no reminder that they are hovering above the relegation zone, a precious win tomorrow could plant either back into the top four. St. Mary’s full-back Ruairi Shields is chasing his fourth try in as many games, an achievement which Belvedere winger Jack Keating chalked off against Armagh last time out.
Gerard Hill, who played for Belvedere College in last year’s Leinster Schools Senior Cup final, replaces Eoin Sweeney in the visitors’ back row. The ‘Belvo management also promote loosehead Adam Howard from the bench. It should be quite a tussle at out-half where 21-year-old Connacht Academy talent Conor Dean comes up against one of the province’s former players, Steve Crosbie.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, January 28, 2017: St. Mary’s College 27 Old Belvedere 18, Templeville Road; Saturday, November 3, 2018: Old Belvedere 29 St. Mary’s College 24, Anglesea Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Belvedere to win