The only certainty in All-Ireland League Division 1B entering the final fortnight is that Ballymena have been relegated. The champions and winners of automatic promotion, plus the teams to advance to the play-offs, are yet to emerge in what has been a fascinating season.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, April 6
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYMENA (10th) v NAAS (4th), Eaton Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballymena: LLWLLLWWWLLLLLLL; Naas: WWLWWLLLLWDLWLWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 118; Tries: Connor Smyth 5; Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 139; Tries: Andy Ellis 9
Preview: Ballymena have nothing but pride to play for in their final home game of an unforgiving season, following their thumping 74-15 defeat at St. Mary’s which confirmed their relegation. A seven-match losing streak has condemned the Braidmen to Division 2A rugby, returning to a tier they last graced in 2014.
Visitors Naas, who lie fourth overall, need to win as they look to close a five-point gap to the top two, Old Wesley and Ballynahinch. Player-coach Johne Murphy touched down twice in their 28-3 home win over Ballymena back in October, and another bonus point return would do nicely for the ambitious Cobras.
Naas made a quick return trip to Ulster just a couple of weeks on from their excellent 42-21 success at Banbridge. Fionn Higgins weighed in with two tries, making it three in four rounds for the speedy young winger. The combination of that pace out wide with the power of a Paulie Tolofua-led pack should see Murphy’s men keep up their winning momentum.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 17, 2018: Ballymena 26 Naas 8, Eaton Park; Saturday, October 13, 2018: Naas 28 Ballymena 3, Forenaughts
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Naas to win
BUCCANEERS (9th) v BANBRIDGE (8th), Dubarry Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Buccaneers: LLWLLLWLLWWLWWLL; Banbridge: LWWWLLWLLWWLLLWL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 106; Tries: Shane Layden 5; Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 78; Tries: Peter Cromie 8
Preview: Banbridge’s first ever trip to Dubarry Park comes with a lot of pressure on both clubs. Buccaneers currently occupy the relegation play-off berth, with Bann sitting just two points above them. Buccs should have a number of their Connacht Eagles representatives back after their involvement in the Stateside Cara Cup competition.
One of them, prop Conor Kenny, misses out through injury, but Darragh Corbett, the scorer of four early-season tries, and Simon Meagher should be back from their spells on the sidelines. The Pirates cannot afford to repeat their missed opportunities from October’s 24-0 away defeat to Banbridge.
Bann head coach Simon McKinstry has reacted to their heavy loss to Naas by making five personnel changes, including the return of forwards Callum Reid and Caleb Montgomery from Ulster ‘A’ duty. Jonny Stewart’s selection at scrum half sees positional switches for Ian Porter and Josh Cromie, while there are also starts for Ben Carson and Ulster senior squad member Greg Jones.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, October 13, 2018: Banbridge 24 Buccaneers 0, Rifle Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Buccaneers to win
CITY OF ARMAGH (5th) v BALLYNAHINCH (2nd), Palace Grounds
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: City of Armagh: LDWLWWLWWLDWLWWL; Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWLWLWLWWWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 70; Tries: Neil Faloon 5; Ballynahinch: Points: Richard Reaney 42; Tries: Ross Adair 7
Preview: Willie Faloon comes up against his former Ulster head coach as City of Armagh entertain Brian McLaughlin’s Ballynahinch in the penultimate Ulster derby of the league phase. Armagh are smarting from a 16-7 reversal at the hands of Malone which has knocked them out of the top four.
These are pivotal weeks for Faloon’s men, who have the Bateman Cup final against Garryowen on Saturday, April 20, but they will not be looking past ‘Hinch. The visitors should be bolstered by returning Ulster players, while Ross Adair continues to shine from full-back, his hat-trick against Old Belvedere making it five tries in four games.
In a division of inconsistent results, Ballynahinch are the team that have bucked that trend of late with four victories on the bounce. However, they were held try-less by Armagh back in mid-October, the sides playing out a three-all draw during which Richard Reaney landed a late levelling penalty for ‘Hinch.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, October 13, 2018: Ballynahinch 3 City of Armagh 3, Ballymacarn Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballynahinch to win
OLD BELVEDERE (7th) v OLD WESLEY (1st), Anglesea Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLWWLLWWLWL; Old Wesley: WDLWLWLWWWLWWWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 117; Tries: Jack Keating 12; Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 149; Tries: Paul Harte 6
Preview: Old Wesley are only 160 minutes away from clinching a much-coveted place in the top flight. Level on 48 points with Ballynahinch, their superior scoring differential (+102 to ‘Hinch’s +42) could yet prove decisive. Their focus is solely on the next two fixtures – two very tough Dublin derbies.
The defences cancelled each other out when Wesley hosted Old Belvedere back in round 2, Steve Crosbie matching Rory Stynes’ hat-trick of penalties as the near-neighbours finished at nine points apiece. ‘Belvo still have it all to play for, trailing the top four by just four points but lying four clear of the relegation zone.
Belvedere have won six of their eight home matches and fit-again full-back Daniel Riordan is back tomorrow, the other changes seeing starts for Tom Molony, Ethan Baxter and Gerard Hill. Wesley’s away form is a big reason why they are where they are now, twelve months on from narrowly avoiding the relegation play-offs. Six wins from eight trips, including an Ulster clean sweep, is a superb return.
Recent League Meetings – Wednesday, March 7, 2018: Old Wesley 34 Old Belvedere 22, Donnybrook; Saturday, October 13, 2018: Old Wesley 9 Old Belvedere 9, Energia Park, Donnybrook
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (6th) v MALONE (3rd), Templeville Road
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: St. Mary’s College: WLLWLWWWLLLWLWLW; Malone: WWLWWWLLLWWWLLLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – St. Mary’s College: Points: Conor Dean 69; Tries: Hugo Conway, Cormac Foley 5 each; Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 75; Tries: Rory Campbell, Peter Cooper 4 each
Preview: St. Mary’s College are another team with a proud home record this season, winning seven out of eight. They host an Ulster club for the second round running and have revenge on their minds after losing 18-10 away to Malone in mid-October. Three points currently separate these sides in the table.
The Cregagh Red Sox travel south after vaulting back up to third place, and they are boosted by four players returning from Cara Cup action. Prop Ross Kane, flanker Joe Dunleavy and backs Stewart Moore and Jack Owens slot back into the starting XV, along with Ulster hooker Adam McBurney and Stuart Dodington in the second row.
A number of young players have stood out for both clubs this season, including Ireland U-20 Grand Slam winner Cormac Foley with his hat-trick exploits for Mary’s last time out. But some wily old campaigners continue to roll back the years, the latest of them being former Mary’s captain Gareth Logan (40) who put in a big 80-minute shift in the second row against Ballymena.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, October 13, 2018: Malone 18 St. Mary’s College 10, Gibson Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: St. Mary’s College to win