From Banbridge down to Highfield, there is a wide spread of clubs in Division 1B of the Energia All-Ireland League. Much of the early season focus is on promoted pair Highfield and Navan and how they fare in the opening rounds.
ENERGIA ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE DIVISION 1B: Saturday, October 5
Kick-off 2.30pm unless stated –
CITY OF ARMAGH v NAAS, Palace Grounds
Preview: City of Armagh were left with plenty of ‘learnings’ after their debut season in Division 1B. Their ambitions were set far higher than an eighth-place finish, but just two more wins – one with a bonus point – would have put them in the promotion play-offs.
Armagh boss Willie Faloon reckons the division is even stronger this year, while his settled squad is ‘a year older, more experienced and just as ambitious’. The same high hopes reside at Forenaughts where Naas are aiming for their third top-four finish in four years.
After the Johne Murphy era ended in play-off heartbreak, South African duo Dan van Zyl and Johan Taylor now head up the Naas coaching ticket. Player-coach Ben Swindlehurst has responsibility for the backs and skills. The Cobras will feel they owe Armagh one after a loss and a draw last term.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, December 8, 2018: City of Armagh 16 Naas 11, Palace Grounds; Saturday, January 26, 2019: Naas 23 City of Armagh 23, Forenaughts
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: City of Armagh to win
HIGHFIELD v MALONE, Woodleigh Park
Preview: A bumper home crowd is ensured for Highfield’s long-awaited Division 1B bow, with three Cork clubs now in the top two tiers. Their player-coach, former Munster prop Tim Ryan, packs down again at tighthead with largely the same set of forwards from last year’s title-winning campaign.
Another former professional player, Ulster and Ireland back rower Chris Henry, is looking forward to his first league game in charge of Malone. His maiden selection includes outside centre David Busby, who left Ulster at the end of last season, and promising young hooker Claytan Milligan.
Determined to make a significant impact on the division, Highfield captain Fintan O’Sullivan said: “We’re not really used to just being mid-table. We’re kinda thinking top-four, minimum. I know a lot of people don’t back us, but we always back ourselves. Everyone keeps telling us that it’s a big step and all this crack, but I think we’re ready for it.”
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, September 23, 2017: Malone 21 Highfield 14, Gibson Park; Saturday, April 7, 2018: Highfield 26 Malone 24, Woodleigh Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Highfield to win
NAVAN v ST. MARY’S COLLEGE, Balreask Old
Preview: A novel pairing for this league opener as Navan kick off their historic first season in Division 1B. After three promotions in as many years, Ray Moloney’s side are relishing the prospect of facing some of the country’s biggest and most-storied clubs. There is free admission tomorrow for this special occasion.
St. Mary’s finished sixth in the table last April with an even split of nine wins and nine defeats. The pick of their early season outings was a 31-25 Leinster Senior League win at Clontarf, and putting together a consistent run of results will be key if Steve Hennessy’s men are to press for promotion.
Most of Navan’s leadership will come from the back row where forwards coach James O’Neill and captain Conor Ryan both start tomorrow. Centres Evan Dixon and Riaan van der Vyver both have experience of the higher divisions and will be looking to hit the ground running.
Recent League Meetings – N/A
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: St. Mary’s College to win
OLD WESLEY v BANBRIDGE, Energia Park
Preview: Promotion was agonisingly out of reach last season for Old Wesley, who finished only three points behind champions Ballynahinch and lost the play-off final to UCC. So, Morgan Lennon’s men will certainly not be lacking motivation on their return to league action.
Wesley’s newly-appointed captain Iain McGann feels they are well placed to contend again, saying: “During the second half of last season we felt we finally clicked as a team. We’re hoping to begin this season with the same form that we finished last season with.”
Mark McDowell has moved across from local rivals Ballynahinch to take over as Banbridge head coach. They were impressive 34-28 bonus point winners at ‘Hinch in the Ulster Rugby Premiership last Saturday and will field an unchanged team, which includes the experienced centre pairing of Andrew Morrison and Jonny Little.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, November 3, 2018: Banbridge 8 Old Wesley 15, Rifle Park; Saturday, March 2, 2019: Old Wesley 22 Banbridge 0, Energia Park
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Wesley to win
SHANNON v OLD BELVEDERE, Thomond Park back pitch
Preview: Former star out-half Tadhg Bennett steps up as Shannon’s head coach as they attempt to bounce back quickly from last season’s relegation from the top flight. Player-coach at Richmond for three years, he is assisted by Mike Storey and Pat Brown in the new Shannon set-up.
Old Belvedere are their first round visitors and the Limerick club will be hoping it is a good omen as they defeated ‘Belvo 18-3 in their first home game two years ago, on the way to winning the Division 1B title. But the Dubliners, led by number 10 Steve Crosbie, boast a strong team.
Dean Moore returns from a few years in France and Limerick to join Connor Owende in ‘Belvo’s engine room, while former Trinity flanker David St. Leger and backs Ariel Robles and James McKeown, who have both moved across from Clontarf, will also start.
Recent League Meetings – Saturday, September 23, 2017: Shannon 18 Old Belvedere 3, Thomond Park main pitch; Saturday, April 7, 2018: Old Belvedere 7 Shannon 12, Anglesea Road
IrishRugby.ie Prediction: Old Belvedere to win