Old Wesley and Ballynahinch, who are locked together on 43 points at the top of the table, are both at home in the latest round of All-Ireland League Division 1B action, while it is fourth plays third at Gibson Park where Ulster rivals Malone and City of Armagh collide.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, March 23
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYNAHINCH (2nd) v OLD BELVEDERE (7th), Ballymacarn Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWLWLWLWWW; Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLWWLLWWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballynahinch: Points: Johnny McPhillips 39; Tries: Rhys O’Donnell 6; Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 110; Tries: Jack Keating 11
Preview: Ballynahinch are one of the clubs hardest hit by the Ulster ‘A’ team’s involvement in the Cara Cup, losing seven players to the Stateside tournament as well as prop Tom O’Toole who is on the Ulster bench tomorrow. ‘Hinch’s strength-in-depth will certainly be tested as they aim for a fourth straight win.
Seventh-placed Old Belvedere are looking for a quick-fire Ulster double after edging out Malone 15-12 last time out. Full-back Joe White, centre David Butler and hooker Ed Rossiter are the three changes in personnel, with Toby Robinson reverting to the left wing. Jack Keating, the division’s top try scorer with 11 tries, completes the back-three.
‘Belvo won 16-13 on their most recent visit to Ballymacarn Park last April, but they were second best when the sides met in the capital in October when ‘Hinch locks James Simpson and Bradley Luney, who is one of the players away in Boston, both crossed for tries in a 32-17 bonus point triumph.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, April 14, 2018: Ballynahinch 13 Old Belvedere 16, Ballymacarn Park; Saturday, October 20, 2018: Old Belvedere 17 Ballynahinch 32, Anglesea Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Belvedere to win
BANBRIDGE (6th) v NAAS (5th), Rifle Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Banbridge: LWWWLLWLLWWLLLW; Naas: WWLWWLLLLWDLWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 78; Tries: Peter Cromie 7; Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 117; Tries: Andy Ellis 8
Preview: It will be a proud moment for centre Johnny Little tomorrow as he makes his 150th All-Ireland League appearance for Banbridge, who had a strong second half to thank for their 31-27 derby defeat of Ballymena. Provincial commitments, including the absence of U-20 Grand Slam winners Callum Reid and David McCann, mean there will be a number of changes.
Out-half Josh Cromie has recovered from an ankle injury and could line out against Naas play-maker Peter Hastie, who helped the Cobras overcome Old Wesley 7-5 in a gripping encounter. That result moved Johne Murphy’s men back into the top half of the table, leaving them just a point outside of the top four with Banbridge only a further point back.
Bann Chairman Robert Ervine said: “We need to win this next game to get out of the dogfight (with only two points separating us from the bottom two). Our final three fixtures are against teams in the same position as ourselves so we’ll focus now on the Naas game – it’s most definitely another ‘must-win’ for us.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 24, 2018: Naas 31 Banbridge 40, Forenaughts; Saturday, October 20, 2018: Naas 16 Banbridge 20, Forenaughts
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Naas to win
MALONE (4th) v CITY OF ARMAGH (3rd), Gibson Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Malone: WWLWWWLLLWWWLLL; City of Armagh: LDWLWWLWWLDWLWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 75; Tries: Rory Campbell, Peter Cooper 4 each; City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 68; Tries: Neil Faloon 5
Preview: Malone want a performance and result to match the positivity surrounding the news that former Ulster and Ireland back rower Chris Henry will coach the Cregagh Red Sox next season. It will be fascinating to see what division they will be in when Henry takes the reins from the popular Paddy Armstrong.
Three successive defeats have moved Malone down to fourth spot, with only a four-point gap to the relegation zone. With the Cara Cup impacting on his selection, Armstrong has added the fit-again Rory Campbell, their top scorer with 75 points, and Shane Kelly to the back-line and promoting forwards Dan Kerr and Ryan Clarke from the bench.
With a cleaner bill of health than most of their rivals, City of Armagh boss Willie Faloon is unlikely to make many changes to the team that put five tries and 39 points on St. Mary’s College. Competition for places is seriously high with Andrew Willis, Daryl Morton, Robert Whitten, Oisin Kiernan and Andrew Smyth all back in contention this week.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 3, 2018: City of Armagh 18 Malone 34, Palace Grounds; Saturday, October 20, 2018: City of Armagh 32 Malone 3, Palace Grounds
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: City of Armagh to win
OLD WESLEY (1st) v BUCCANEERS (9th), Energia Park, Donnybrook
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Wesley: WDLWLWLWWWLWWWL; Buccaneers: LLWLLLWLLWWLWWL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 133; Tries: Paul Harte 5; Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 106; Tries: Shane Layden 5
Preview: Two of the losing clubs from the last round will be looking to make amends tomorrow. Reinforcing a defence which conceded seven tries to Ballynahinch is top of Buccaneers’ agenda, and the Pirates will draw confidence from their October meeting with Old Wesley which resulted in a dominant 41-14 win.
However, Wesley have won eight of their 12 games since then and are currently leading the promotion race on scoring difference. Their spread of try scorers between backs and forwards shows the potency and variety of their attack, with Cork-born number 8 Paul Derham stepping up with two tries in the last three matches.
The Cara Cup has cut Buccs’ selection options but they should be able to field a similar side to the one that went down 43-24 to ‘Hinch, with Rory Moloney and Evan Galvin leading a combative back row. Nonetheless, Wesley should have too much firepower for the midlanders on their fast track in Donnybrook.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 11, 2017: Buccaneers 36 Old Wesley 14, Dubarry Park; Saturday, October 20, 2018: Buccaneers 41 Old Wesley 14, Dubarry Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (8th) v BALLYMENA (10th), Templeville Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: St. Mary’s College: WLLWLWWWLLLWLWL; Ballymena: LLWLLLWWWLLLLLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – St. Mary’s College: Points: Conor Dean 69; Tries: Hugo Conway 4; Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 113; Tries: Connor Smyth 5
Preview: Bottom side Ballymena have really struggled for continuity this season and they are hit injuries and unavailability again this week. As an example, four of their starting forwards from the last round are absent tomorrow, including Ulster call-up Clive Ross and the Ulster ‘A’-tied JJ McKee and Marcus Rea, the club captain.
Rodger McBurney is back to full fitness to start at full-back for the Braidmen, who have Phil Campbell packing down at number 8 and Eoin Ritson and Sam Miller filling the wing berths. It is win or bust for Andy Graham’s men with second-from-bottom Buccs 14 points ahead of them.
Like many of their divisional rivals, St. Mary’s are in the limbo area between challenging for the promotion play-offs and staving off relegation. Steven Hennessy’s charges have followed a defeat with a win on the last two occasions, and the Templeville Road factor certainly tips this one in their favour.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 6, 2016: Ballymena 12 St. Mary’s College 15, Eaton Park; Saturday, October 20, 2018: Ballymena 40 St. Mary’s College 22, Eaton Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: St. Mary’s College to win