Ballina, Midleton and Bruff – the leading three teams in Division 2C – are all on their travels today as the bottom tier of the All-Ireland League begins the penultimate month of the regular season with some mouth-watering matches.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 2C: Saturday, March 2
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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Bangor (6th) v Tullamore (7th), Upritchard Park
Bangor got the performance they wanted but not the result as they came home empty-handed from Bruff last Saturday. The Seasiders’ six-match losing streak stretches back to the start of December, a worrying run which they hope to put behind them today against close rivals Tullamore.
The seventh-placed Tulliers are now only two points behind Bangor in the table after last week’s confidence-boosting 26-21 triumph over Omagh. Three of their four tries were scored by forwards – lock Sean Rigney, flanker Ciaran Ennis and player-forwards coach Lemeki Vaipulu.
Bangor are fiercely determined to banish memories of November’s 27-0 loss to a Barry Bracken and Karl Dunne-inspired Tullamore. Oscar Yandell, Ali Lockhart and Adam Alexander are back on matchday duty, with player-coach Michael Ferguson expected to tweak the starting line-up.
Malahide (5th) v Midleton (2nd), Estuary Road
An intriguing clash with Malahide hosting their 15th league fixture at Estuary Road since coming up from the junior ranks. In that time their only home defeats have come against Omagh last season and Bangor in September, while back-to-back wins in the last fortnight have the Dubliners hunting down a play-off spot.
Visitors Midleton continue their pursuit of table toppers Ballina, sitting nine points clear of Malahide – the only team to lower the east Cork side’s colours at Towns Park this season. Converted tries from key backs Rory Kavanagh and Marcus McAllister saw Mals take home the points on a 14-6 scoreline.
Midleton left it late to see off Thomond last week and will need a much more rounded performance this afternoon. Spectators will be keeping a close eye on the two number 13s with Midleton’s Kiwi centre Benji Cottle having scored six league tries already and Kavanagh also a regular scorer for Mals – he is chasing his third try in as many games.
Omagh (4th) v City of Derry (8th), Thomas Mellon Playing Fields
Captain Stewart McCain and full-back Ali Beckett, who both missed last week’s loss to Tullamore, return to the Omagh team for their north-west derby against City of Derry. Kyle Alexander replaces the injured Richard Hemphill at loosehead prop and Michael Gibson comes in at blindside flanker.
Despite going down 45-27 to Malahide, Derry have been in very good form of late. Out-half Alex McDonnell and flanker Chris Lamberton return as starters this afternoon, with the the visitors’ other three personnel changes seeing Barry Laverty and Adam Bratton added to the tight five and James Perry named on the left wing.
Eager for revenge after November’s 19-10 reversal at the hands of the Accies, Derry centre Thomas Cole said: “We have to improve our defence for the Omagh match because we had too many missed tackles against Malahide. We’ve focused a lot on tackle technique this week and our movement on the ground once tackled.”
Seapoint (10th) v Bruff (3rd), Kilbogget Park
Having done well in the forward exchanges against leaders Ballina, Seapoint will field an unchanged pack for today’s test against a formidable Bruff unit. Bain Champion and Cian Buckley swap positions in the back-line, with the New Zealander back at number 10, and Brian Guerin is picked on the right wing.
Shane Biggins replaces Kevin McManus at full-back for Bruff who have lost their last three away matches. The third-placed side also bring Robert Coates and Keith Laffen into their front row, while captain John Clery switches to openside flanker in place of knee injury victim Cillian Rea.
Neilus Keogh, the scorer of Bruff’s closing try against Bangor last week, is kept on the bench as an impact option. The Limerick men were 20-5 winners over Seapoint in November, a game in which their Kiwi flanker and forwards coach Taylor Jones picked up a brace of tries.
Thomond (9th) v Ballina (1st), Liam Fitzgerald Park
Thomond need to put two gut-wrenching late defeats behind them as table-topping Ballina make the near 126-mile trip to Liam Fitzgerald Park. The Moysiders won 35-20 when the sides met in November but they did not have it all their own way, and the Soda Cakes are always a tough proposition at home.
Ballina have added out-half Dylan Prendergast, the scorer of two closing penalties against Seapoint, and winger Darragh Whyte to a rejigged back-line, which includes Kieran Lindsay at inside centre and Alex Corduff on the right wing. Tim Wallace reverts to the second row with Aiden McNulty back in at number 8.
Thomond have opted to make four changes in personnel, selecting Dermot Fitzgerald and Eoghan Carr at full-back and inside centre respectively, while hooker Darren Radcliffe and number 8 Wayne Mullaney are handed starts up front. Keelan McMahon shifts to the blindside berth.