All-Ireland trophies are up for grabs in Dublin and Naas today, but the annual promotion/relegation play-offs are also commanding plenty of attention. Buccaneers, who finished second-from-bottom in Division 1B, host a dangerous Queen’s University side that scored a whopping 532 points across the regular season.
ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: Saturday, April 20
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DIVISION 1B PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
Buccaneers v Queen’s University, Dubarry Park
Not the sort of play-off rugby that Buccaneers head coach Peter O’Donnell wanted to be playing at the end of his first season. He took the opportunity to rest some players with niggles last week against Naas, so captain Shane Layden, Callum Boland and John Sutton should be raring to go.
As ever, Buccs are always a tougher proposition with their Connacht contingent on board and Academy youngster Luke Carty, brother of Jack, looks a bright prospect with 118 league points to his name this season. The 21-year-old out-half needs another big performance with his club’s second tier status on the line.
For their first trip to Dubarry Park, Queen’s have pretty much a full deck on board. Lock Ali Burke and backs Mark Keane and Rory Bell slot back in after missing the 43-31 win at Old Crescent. Number 8 James Catterson starts after having his red card rescinded. Captain David Whitten, positioned in the second row this week, and out-half Richie McMaster provide key leadership.
Cashel v Navan, Spafield
Cashel’s reward for winning 32-24 at Dolphin and finishing second in Division 2A is a home play-off semi-final against Navan. Denis Leamy has managed his playing resources well, and his younger brother Ed and captain James Ryan are back to bolster the back row with Richard Moran switching to lock.
There are also starts this week for Croatian international prop Ivan Miljak and winger Eamonn Connolly. Both sides won their respective home games either side of Christmas, hooker Niall Fitzgerald crossing twice in Cashel’s 23-7 win before Navan triumphed 20-13 at Balreask Old thanks to full-back Paddy Fox’s dramatic late try.
The Meath men are chasing their third promotion in as many years, having won Division 2C in 2017 and been successful away to both Greystones and Rainey Old Boys in last season’s play-offs. Although flanker Conor Farrell is an injury doubt, Ray Moloney’s men have a well-balanced side and this one looks set to go right down to the wire.
DIVISION 2A PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
Blackrock College v Sligo, Stradbrook
There is plenty of interest in how Blackrock College fare in the play-offs after this week’s announcement that James Blaney will take over as head coach in the summer. They boosted their confidence levels with a 17-0 win at Galwegians last Saturday, during which player-coach Mick Carroll lined out alongside his younger brother Cian.
Sligo are certainly an up-and-coming team, claiming the Division 2C title a year ago and now lie two wins away from a place in Division 2A. They were able to rest some key men against Sunday’s Well, so co-captains Ryan Feehily and Shane O’Hehir return today along with out-half Mark Butler and lock Rob Holian.
With Mata Fifita and Conor Mitchell intending to hang up their boots, the Yeats men will want to give them a big send-off and back-to-back promotions would have Paddy Pearson’s squad in dreamland. However, ‘Carroll’s Rock team are better than their league position suggests and home advantage could prove decisive.
Greystones v Rainey Old Boys, Dr. Hickey Park
This could be the tightest contest of the opening play-off weekend. It was one home victory apiece during the league phase – 42-28 for Greystones at Dr. Hickey Park and 35-19 for Rainey in Magherafelt – and the visitors hit the Co. Wicklow coastline with a fully stacked squad after blooding some youngsters against Division 2B champions MU Barnhall.
Openside and captain Paul Pritchard, Tim Barker, Brad Roberts and half-backs Andrew Magrath and Jason Bloomfield all return to Rainey’s starting XV. Head coach John Andrews is putting a big emphasis on the set piece battle where locks Barker and John McCusker will need to lay down an early marker.
Greystones scrum half Andrew Roberts starred with a hat-trick of tries against Wanderers last Saturday. He is one of the potential match winners in the hosts’ strong back-line, which includes captain Andrew Kealy, Con Callan and Josh Glynn. Barnhall were the only team to beat ‘Stones in their nine home games.
DIVISION 2B PROMOTION/RELEGATION PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS:
Skerries v Malahide, Holmpatrick
It is crunch time for Skerries and Malahide in this mouth-watering north Dublin derby. It was heartbreak for Skerries last Saturday as Dungannon centre Paul Armstrong’s conversion with the last kick of the game condemned the Goats to a 24-22 defeat – having led 22-0 – and a place in the play-offs.
So this is a big mental and physical test for Mark Harrington’s charges just seven days on. There are some terrific individual battles in prospect, with Kevin McGrath and ex-Connacht back Danie Poolman in the full-back positions, Paul Devitt and Marcus McAllister opposing each other on the wing, while both back rows are in form.
Malahide player-coach Brendan Guilfoyle and John Shine will be looking to outdo Skerries number 8 Ross McAuley and openside Ben Jenkinson. Guilfoyle has made four changes as Rory Kavanagh and Shane O’Brien resume at outside centre and out-half respectively, while TJ Relihan and Damien Butler get the nod in the front row.
Midleton v Bruff, Towns Park
Munster rivals Midleton and Bruff meet only a week after the second-placed Corkmen lost 26-8 at Kilballyowen Park. Today’s rematch will see Midleton make some notable changes, bringing Rob Smyth back in at scrum half and reintroducing Kevin Brierley, Bryan Moore and back rowers Aidan Ware and Rob Carey up front.
Bruff are expecting a much stiffer test this afternoon, especially as home advantage now passes to Tom Mulcahy’s men. Hooker and captain John Clery led by example seven days ago, scoring two tries with Midleton struggling at lineout time. Bruff’s eventual bonus point lifted them above Malahide for a third-place finish.
The Limerick men are set to line out unchanged for the play-off semi-final. New Zealander Taylor Jones, at number 8, is a player Midleton will have to keep close tabs on. Neilus Keogh, a member of Ireland’s 2007 Under-20 Grand Slam-winning squad, is another powerful ball carrier who will relish the physical exchanges.