With three divisional champions already decided, the All-Ireland League’s penultimate piece of silverware on offer is the Division 1B title. It has been a fascinating campaign in the second tier with teams tightly packed throughout. It is so congested that eighth-placed City of Armagh are still in contention for a top-four finish.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Saturday, April 13
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
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BALLYNAHINCH (1st) v ST. MARY’S COLLEGE (5th), Ballymacarn Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWLWLWLWWWWW; St. Mary’s College: WLLWLWWWLLLWLWLWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballynahinch: Points: Richard Reaney 54; Tries: Ross Adair, Rhys O’Donnell 7 each; St. Mary’s College: Points: Conor Dean 82; Tries: Hugo Conway 6
Preview: It is a big day for Ballynahinch as they look to turn their new-found three-point lead into automatic promotion and Division 1B silverware. Ulster have not had a Division 1A club since ‘Hinch were relegated in 2016 and, with five wins on the bounce, Brian McLaughlin’s men are almost there.
St. Mary’s would love to spoil the party at Ballymacarn Park, having strung together four victories in the last six rounds. In order to reach the promotion play-offs, they need a win tomorrow and for other results to go their way. They came through an 11-try humdinger against Malone, with winger Hugo Conway grabbing his sixth try of the season.
‘Hinch’s Ross Adair and Rhys O’Donnell are one ahead of him, the former scoring five tries in as many games. Ulster’s David Busby made a welcome return from long-term injury last week and this looks like a clash he could flourish in, as ‘Hinch and Mary’s usually produce a high-scoring encounter whenever they meet.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 21, 2015: St. Mary’s College 32 Ballynahinch 25, Templeville Road; Saturday, October 6, 2018: St. Mary’s College 37 Ballynahinch 27, Templeville Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Ballynahinch to win
BANBRIDGE (7th) v OLD BELVEDERE (6th), Rifle Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Banbridge: LWWWLLWLLWWLLLWLW; Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLWWLLWWLWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 78; Tries: Peter Cromie 8; Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 127; Tries: Jack Keating 13
Preview: A glance at the Division 1B table shows that eight clubs could still finish in the promotion play-off places, including Banbridge and Old Belvedere. A hectic final round awaits with Bann boss Simon McKinstry sticking with the winning formula from last Saturday’s hard-earned 24-20 victory at Buccaneers.
His unchanged starting XV includes Ulster’s Jonny Stewart at scrum half, Caleb Montgomery and Greg Jones in the back row, and Ireland Under-20 prop Callum Reid. Having secured their divisional status, Bann director of rugby Andy Duke said: “We’ve nothing to lose now. There’s an admittedly outside chance of the play-offs, but the lads will feel free to throw the ball about and go for the tries.”
Belvedere showed what they can do when knocking Old Wesley off the summit – 30-24. Kiwi lock Valentine Tauamiti and Karl Miller come into the pack, the latter joining a rejigged back row that is missing Leinster ‘A’ call-up Gerard Hill. Centre Ben Carty and winger David Butler are the two changes behind the scrum.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, January 6, 2018: Old Belvedere 18 Banbridge 15, Anglesea Road; Saturday, October 6, 2018: Old Belvedere 42 Banbridge 28, Anglesea Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Banbridge to win
MALONE (4th) v BALLYMENA (10th), Gibson Park
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Malone: WWLWWWLLLWWWLLLWL; Ballymena: LLWLLLWWWLLLLLLLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 75; Tries: Rory Campbell, Peter Cooper 4 each; Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 127; Tries: Connor Smyth 5
Preview: Relegated Ballymena bow out from Division 1B with a final Ulster derby, visiting a Malone outfit that could prolong head coach Paddy Armstrong’s final season as they look to advance to the play-offs. Malone’s backs coach Josh Pentland starts at inside centre, with Ben Halliday and Dave Cave added to the front row.
Rodger McBurney, who started last Saturday at full-back against Naas, and James Taggart are ruled out for the Braidmen this week. The club’s ongoing struggles with injuries have even drawn 40-year-old veteran lock Ian Caldwell from the fourths team to play for Andy Graham’s senior side. They will be relying on Ulster’s Marcus Rea and Bruce Houston tomorrow, and possibly Clive Ross if released.
Hoping for brighter days ahead at Eaton Park, Ballymena head coach Graham said: “It’s about regrouping and recruiting now, but also building on what we have, the players we have. We’ve a young squad and a lot of guys need time to develop and stuff, so we’ll work hard during the summer and hopefully build for the future.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 28, 2015: Malone 10 Ballymena 13, Gibson Park; Saturday, October 6, 2018: Ballymena 0 Malone 27, Eaton Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Malone to win
NAAS (3rd) v BUCCANEERS (9th), Forenaughts
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Naas: WWLWWLLLLWDLWLWWW; Buccaneers: LLWLLLWLLWWLWWLLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 156; Tries: Andy Ellis 10; Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 116; Tries: Shane Layden 6
Preview: Buccaneers’ six losing bonus points show they were not far off winning a few more games and joining the teams above them in the promotion play-off mix. Instead, last week’s 24-20 loss to Banbridge leaves them battling relegation – they will host a play-off semi-final next Saturday, with Queen’s University the likely opponents.
Johne Murphy’s Naas are seeking their fourth victory on the trot, with a five-point return tomorrow giving them their best shot at pipping Ballynahinch and Old Wesley to the title. Versatile back Peter Osborne (156 points) is the leading scorer across the top two divisions, while centre/winger Andy Ellis is now in double figures for tries after two in the last two rounds.
Captain Shane Layden continues to carry the fight for Buccs, taking his try haul to six against Bann, while forwards Martin Staunton and Evan Galvin emerged with a good deal of credit from their performances last time out. Whether it is Richard Fahy or Osborne at number 9, it should be a cracking contest with Buccs’ Ireland Under-20 scrum half Colm Reilly.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 25, 2017: Buccaneers 30 Naas 23, Dubarry Park; Saturday, October 6, 2018: Buccaneers 13 Naas 36, Dubarry Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Naas to win
OLD WESLEY (2nd) v CITY OF ARMAGH (8th), Energia Park, Donnybrook
All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Wesley: WDLWLWLWWWLWWWLWL; City of Armagh: LDWLWWLWWLDWLWWLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 154; Tries: Paul Harte 6; City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 77; Tries: Neil Faloon 5
Preview: Failing to finish their opportunities is what has been letting City of Armagh down. Still, having come up via the play-offs last year, this has been a very good season of consolidation for Willie Faloon’s squad who could yet end in the top-four and also have next week’s Bateman Cup final to build towards.
For their final round trip to Donnybrook, winger Ryan Purvis and out-half Harry Boyd get the nod along with front rowers Daryl Morton, Jonny Morton and Paul Mullen, as well as blindside flanker Nigel Simpson. Old Wesley were 22-17 winners when the teams met in the opening round in October.
Wesley have played some of their best rugby this year against Ulster opposition, and will be fired up to bounce back strongly from losing at Old Belvedere. They will not want that loss to define their season, and even if ‘Hinch remain top, Morgan Lennon’s charges will need some momentum to take into the play-offs. As things stand, they would be at home to Naas next Saturday.
Recent League Meeting – Saturday, October 6, 2018: City of Armagh 17 Old Wesley 22, Palace Grounds
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win