Domestic Club Rugby preview: Sat 20th December 2014, by George Millar

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It may be the season of good will, but for the Ulster rugby clubs the intensity of the fixture scheduling, means the players will not have the opportunity to relax and enjoy the festivities such is the expectation levels for players and teams competing in the Ulster Bank All Ireland League and the Qualifying leagues. We must congratulate Bangor 1st xv on reaching the final of the Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup after defeating Clogher Valley 9 – 6 last Sat. They must await their opponents with CIYMS and Dundalk drawing 25 – 25 in a nail biting semi final. The replay will take place this Saturday in Dundalk. Congratulations are also offered to Instonians who defeated Omagh 13 – 0 in a thrilling Junior Cup final on wednesday night. The Ulster AIL clubs will be deprived off their Ireland under 20 players, who have to attend a squad get together this wekend. In the AIL we have eleven Ulster teams fighting for their survival, such is the level of competition with the other three Irish provinces. In Div 1A Ballynahinch have shown why they are the number one club in Ulster as they push to secure a top four playoff place. Having won the Ulster Senior Cup, they will represent Ulster in the semi finals of the All Ireland Bateman Cup. They are favourites to win the Ulster Championship league in their sixteith anniversary season. Ballymena are in contention to join Ballynahinch next season in Div 1A. What is the future for the rest of the Ulster AIL clubs. Malone and Belfast Harlequins once again will be engaged in a relegation battle to remain in Div 1B. Three Leinster clubs lead the chase for promotion in Div 2A with Queens hoping to maintain their promotion challenge. For Queens, signing promising Ulster under 19/20 players has its disadvantages with these players required to play for the Ulster Ravens and Irish and Ulster under age representative teams. What are the prospects for Queens, Banbridge, Rainey OB, City of Derry and Dungannon in Div 2A and Armagh and Ards in Div 2B this season. We are now entering the second half of the AIL season with Ulster clubs facing a fixture programme that offers little for players and teams in comparison to the Qualifying clubs who have exciting league and Cup competitions to compete for. Instonians may have been relegated from the AIL last season, but their pursuit of silverware has now ended after twenty years, as they secured the Millar, McCall Wylie Junior Cup last night at the Kingspan stadium. They will face a diffcult decision at the end of the season whether they want to return to the AIL and the anonymity of playing in fifth tier of the AIL. We have to question the decision making processes of the four provincial Branches and the IRFU in trying to sustain an unworkable structure that is destroying the club game at Senior level in Ireland. What we need is a league structure made up of the top twenty club teams in Ireland, divided into two ten team leagues with the remaining thirty two AIL clubs returning to play in their provinces. Ask Bangor and CIYMS rugby teams what it is like to be contesting the latter stages of the All Ireland Junior Cup. There is no equivalent competition for the teams competing in Div 2A and B of the AIL. No doubt the players turning out for these club sides would prefer to play in meaningful competitions rather that being involved in a competition that has failed to excite supporters and the media in Ulster.
Div 1A
Ballynahinch continue their pursuit of a top four finish. They are in seventh place where three points separate the six teams positioned in third and eighth place. Coach Derek Suffern and his players are looking to maintain their undefeated home record. His playing squad has been strengthened by the release of Ulster players, Kyle McCall, John Donnan, Jonny Murphy, James Simpson, Chalie Butterworth and Craig Trenier. Former Captain Stuart Morrow is unavailable along with centre Richard Reaney. Both Rodger McBurney and Kenny Morton remain on the injured list. Centre Sam Arnold is away with the Ireland Under 20 squad this weekend.
Fixtures. Sat 20.12.14. Kick off 2.30pm
Cork Constitution v Dolphin. Played Friday 19.12.14. Kick off 7.30pm
Ballynahinch v Young Munster
Old Belvedere v Clontarf
Terenure College v UCD
Landsdowne v St Mary’s College
Div 2A
Ballymena remain in second place with promotion a realistic goal. Coach Andy Graham will have Ulster players Dave Ryan, Ricky Andrew and Dave Shanahan available for the trip to Galway to play Corinthians. Ireland under 20 call ups will deprive him of Michael Lagan and Adam McBurney. A last minute penalty kick by out half Richie McMaster secured a 21 – 19 win over Armagh at Eaton Park last Sat. Number 8 Stephen Mulholland remains a key player on this team.
Malone make the trip to Athlone to play Buccaneers at Dubarry Park in a 7.30pm kick off on Sat evening. With only Paul Jackson and Conor Joyce being released by Ulster, coaches Jacque Benade and Michael Ferguson will travel with an understrength squad. The unfortunate James McAllister only lasted ten minutes on his return from injury in the Senior Cup final against Ballynahinch, sustaining a fractured arm that will again rule him out for several months. Both Josh Bingham and Ross Todd will be engaged with the Ireland under 20 squad. A difficult trip for the East Belfast side, against the new Connacht Senior Cup winners who defeated league leaders Galwegians at the Sportsground last Sunday. Belfast Harlequins face a must win game at home to UL Bohemians at Deramore Park. The release of several Ulster players including Rory Scholes, Michael Heaney, Frankie Taggart and either Neil McComb or Ricky Lutton should bolster the selection options available to coach Adam Larkin. They will also welcome the return of the injured Mark Best. Both Mark Fraser and Josh Fullerton are rated very doubtful. Some encouraging news has been the return to training of Willie Stewart and Mark Wylie.
Fixtures. Sat 20.12.14. Kick off 2.30pm
Shannon v Garryowen. Played Friday 19.12.14. Kick off 7.30pm
Belfast Harlequins v UL Bohemians
Corinthians v Ballymena
Dublin Uni v Galwegians
Buccaneers v Malone. Kick off 7.30pm
Div 2A
Queens are the best placed Ulster side. Having been deprived off their front line players coach Bob Young has struggled to find a settled team. Again Ireland under 20 call ups will deprive them off several players. Out half Sean o’Hagan was injured playing for the Ravens last Sat. This will be a tricky fixtures for the students against Bective Rangers at the Dub this weekend. The remaining Ulster teams are fighting it out to finish in the top ten and retain their place in the third tier of the AIL. Rainey make the journey down South to face Cashel in a difficult fixture. Coach Richard Boyd has a full squad at his disposal with Mark O’Connor converting a vital kick to win their last home match against Bective Rangers. Banbridge have been unfortunate, losing several league matches by one score. A trip to Stevenson Park on Sat will hopefully yield a first away win for Daniel Soper and his team. Dungannon lost a keenly contested AIL game at City of Derry 30 – 17 two weeks ago. City of Derry have second placed Blackrock College at Judges Road. After being relegated the Dublin side have bounced back to maintain their promotion challenge. Derry need the points.
Fixtures. Sat 2012.14. Kick off. 2.30pm
Cashel v Rainey OB
City of Derry v Blackrock College
Dungannon v Banbridge
Nenagh Ormond v Naas
Old Wesley v Thomomd
Queens Uni v Bective Rangers
Seapoint v Skerries
Div 2B
Armagh continue to fly the flag for Ulster in this league. They are battling to finish in the top four and retain their place in the fourth tier of the AIL. For their opponents Ards at Hamilton Park, the County Down side are looking their first win in the AIL. Two heavy defeats against Highfield and Greystones will have dented the confidence of coach Stewart Porter and his players. Armagh are at full strength and will be looking maximum points.
Fixtures. Friday 19.12.14. Kick off 7.30pm
DLSP v Greystones
Richmond v Old Crescent
Tullamore v Navan
Fixtures Sat 20.12.14. Kick off 2.30pm
Wanderers v Highfield
Ards v Armagh
Midleton v Kanturk
Sundays Well v Boyne
Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup Semi Final Replay
CIYMS and Dundalk will go head to head in Dundalk to decide Bangor’s opponent in the final. Both teams played out a thrilling semi final draw. With no floodlights available at Belmont, both teams were unable to play extra time. There is little to choose between both teams with Dundalk possibly slight favourites. CIYMS are at full strength with no injuries.
Fixture. Sat 20.12.14. Kick off 2pm
Dundalk v CIYMS
Qualifying League One
I make no apologies by saying these leagues provide the most exciting rugby for supporters to follow in Ulster. This is reflected by the hundreds of supporters who turn out each week to follow their teams. This weekend we have the meeting of the top two teams Instonians and Clogher Valley at Shawsbridge. Clogher Valley will be missing Captain Aaron Best, Seamus McKenna, David Dunlop and Phil Moore through injury after their bruising physical contest with Bangor last weekend in the AIL Junior Cup semi final. Alastair Trenier is unavailable with Clive Donaldson, Mark Ellis and Matthew Robinson starting. Back row forward David Sharkey takes over the captaincy with Ronan McAleer and Nathan Orr on the bench. Instonians coach William Leacock described his sides Junior Cup final with Omagh as “Warfare” with both sides picking up several injuries from the contest. He has delayed selection until tonight as his battered and bruised playing squad recover from their Junior Cup triumph. It is interesting to note how opposition sides have made life difficult for the runaway leaders Instonians in recent weeks. Coming matches against Clogher Valley and Portadown will go along way to deciding the winners of Q 1. Sure to attract another large crowd to the magnificent Shaws bridge venue. Ballyclare host Portadown as both teams look to secure a top four placing. Portadown have recorded back to back wins with Ballyclare suffering defeats to Clogher Valley and Omagh. Alot at stake for both teams. AIL Junior Cup finalists Bangor have rung the changes for the visit of injury plagued Cooke. Again Bangor need the points to retain their fourth placing with Cooke looking over their shoulder at Donaghadee and Ballymoney as the relegation battle hots up. Second row Darren Kelly is not available with James Henley taking twelve months out in Australia. Freddie Black and Gareth Irvine will make up the second row. Andrew Jackson and Mark Widdowson take their place on the bench with Ricky Armstrong and Davy Charles rested. Philip Whyte moves to hooker with Oran McIImurray starting at prop. Jamie Ball and Craig Harper will contest the 9 jersey. Desi Fusco starts in the centre alongside Mike Apsley. Chris Morgan and Adam McCusker start on the wings with Mike Weir moving to full back. Cooke coach Colin Atkinson has added Liam Bennett, Graham Jewhurst and winger Andy pollack to his growing injury list and will give several promising youngsters their debut. The focus may be on the top end of the league this weekend but there is a crucial relegation decider involving the bottom two sides Donaghadee and Ballymoney at Donaldson Park. The Dee came unstuck after their win over CIYMS – losing at Dromore. Ballymoney have shown they are no pushovers as they pushed league leaders Instonians all the way before losing 13 – 0. The Dromore v CIYMS match has had to be postponed due to CIYMS being involved in their AIL Junior Cup replay on Sat.
Fixtures. Sat 20.12.14. Kick off 2.30pm
Ballyclare v Portadown
Bangor v Cooke
Donaghadee v Ballymoney
Instonians v Clogher Valley
Qualifying Two
We have a thrilling contest at Mullaghmeen on Friday night when Enniskillen host Junior Cup finalists Omagh. These fixtures always attract a large crowd with both teams performing well this season. League favourites Omagh know a win will allow them to regain top place from leaders Carrickfergus. Omagh coach Phil Marshall’s side picked up several injuries in wednesday nights bruising Junior Cup final with Instonians at the Kingspan stadium. Key forwards Mervyn Edgar, Dean Porter and Richard Harpur are already ruled out with three other major injury doubts. Omagh ended up playing two 18 year olds in the back row on wednesday night. Both players impressed with former Omagh Academy 1st xv Captain James Catterson an outstanding prospect along with Stuart Allen who put in a big second half performance. Enniskillen are at full strength after a three week break. Their league game at Lisburn being postponed last Sat. Coach Norman Richmond will be looking nothing less than a win if his side are to stay involved in the promotion hunt. Academy coach Gareth Lynn has selected a strong team for the visit of bottom side Holywood to Roughfort. Ross Bryans replaces Simon Patterson at full back with Captain Lee Moody returning after injury. There is another important relegation game at Belmont this weekend with the home side Grosvenor hosting Lisburn. Coach Alasdair McKee will have been relieved by his sides 12 – 7 win at UUC last Sat.
Fixtures. Sat 20.12.14. kick off. 2.30PM
Enniskillen v Omagh. Played Friday 19.12.14. Kick off 7.30pm
Academy v Holywood
Grosvenor v Lisburn
Qualifying Three
Fixtures. Sat 20.12.14. kick off 2.30pm
Limavady v PSNI
Ophir v Newry
Qualifying Four
Fixtures. Sat 20.12.14. kick off 2.30pm
Cavan v Letterkenny
Civil Service v BHSFP
Hawkins Cup
Larne and Carrickfergus compete for the Hawkins Cup at the Tom Simms Memeorial Park this weekend. Played over two legs, Larne won the opening encounter in Sept when they defeated Carrick 23 – 6 at the Glynn. Both teams are sitting top of Q 2 and 3. Bragging rights will add to the intensity of this fixture. This East Antrim derby is sure to attract a large crowd for this appetising Xmas fixture.
Carrickfergus v Larne. Kick off 2.30pm. Sat 20.12.14.

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