Domestic rugby preview: Sat 24th January 2015 by George Millar

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All Ireland League, Ulster Championship league, Towns Cup and Qualifying league action dominate the domestic programme this weekend. In the AIL league the focus will be on Div 2A and B with the Div 1A and B clubs having a weekend off. There is so much at stake for the five Ulster clubs in Div 2A and the the two clubs in Div 2B. Promotion is the goal for Queens Uni to Div 1B this season, as they seek to finish in the top two in Div 2A with Banbridge, Rainey, City of Derry and Dungannon needing points from their seven remaining matches to finish in the top ten and retain their place in the third tier of AIL rugby. In Div 2B Armagh aim to finish in the top four to retain their place in the fourth tier of the AIL. Ards are fighting for their survival in the AIL as they prop up Div 2B in sixteenth place. The clubs finishing in fifteenth and sixteenth place will be automically relegated as the IRFU reduce the number of participating clubs from 52 to 50 with their plans to introduce five ten team leagues for the season 2015/16. The team finishing fourteenth in Div 2B will face a playoff with the Round robin winners to secure a place in the AIL next season.

In the Powerade Towns Cup we have eight second round ties with holders Clogher Valley and All Ireland Junior Cup finalists Bangor many people’s favourites to contest the final at the Kingspan stadium on Easter Monday. Can AIL second xv sides Ballynahinch and Ballymena have a say in its outcome not to mention Qualifying Two form sides Enniskillen and Carrickfergus.

Ballynahinch 1st xv have a rearranged UCL match with Belfast Harlequins at Deramore Park as they look to close the gap on leaders City of Derry with Omagh 1st xv looking to create some space between themselves and the chasing pack at the top of Qualifying Two.

Div 2A
Banbridge (8th) v Nenagh Ormond (6th)
Two points separate these two sides with Bann coach Daniel Soper still believing his side have an outside chance of promotion this season. They have won 3, lost 4 and drawn one from their first eight matches. The lost of Ulster pivot Ian Porter to Connacht opened up the opportunity for a player to stake a place for the out half berth. Up stepped young Aaron Kennedy who has had a very good season. Another to impress has been full back Adam Doherty along with prop Stuart Cromie. In preparation for the resumption of the AIL, the coach has been putting the players through a mini pre season after the Xmas break. Points are vital to both sides with the outcome of this match difficult to call. Home advantage may see Bann secure that all important win.

Queens Uni (3rd) v Naas (10th)
The students sit three points behind second place Blackrock College and nine points behind leaders Old Wesley. Once again selection will be a key issue for coach Bob Young with five of his squad, Jacob Stockdale, Jack Owens, Lorcan Dow, Zac McCall and Alex Thompson, selected for the Ireland Six Nations under 20 squad this week. Six players stepped up from the seconds last week to play for the 1st xv in their 49 – 0 win over Ards with Sean O’Hagan and Daryl Morton still on the injured list. Every one of the matches left in this league will have to be played as a Cup final if the students are to fulfil their ambition of securing promotion.

Rainey OB ( 12th)v UCC (11th)
Coach Richard Boyd has a full squad available to select from. Both these teams are level on 15 points with Naas one point ahead in tenth place. Again the battle to finish in the top ten will focus the efforts of his players. Key forward Paddy McGowan remains an injury doubt with winger Nicholas Sterling expected to start after being rested. There is so much playing talent in this squad, now is the time for the players to step up and show the coach and supporters what this team is capable off. So much at stake for both teams at Hatrick Park. Home adavantage should secure the points for the Magherfelt side.

City of Derry (13th) v Skerries (4th)
New coach Terry McMaster was delighted with his sides 19 – 10 win at Belfast Harlequins last Sat. A new era for the man appointed last week as Head coach to keep his side in the third tier of the AIL. They are two points behind tenth placed Naas as the new coach has set his side a target of securing twenty two points from their remaining seven matches. A big challenge for the players. The goal is to reach thirty five points and finish in the top ten. Derry suffered a major set back last Sat with Captain David Funston suffering a dislocated elbow that will rule him out for six to eight weeks. A must win game for the North West side.

Dungannon (15th) v Thomond (9th)
The County Tyrone side may be struggling this season but they are still only seven points behind tenth place Naas. Can they secure the points to retain their place in the third tier of the AIL. They have the players in James McMahon, Jack Milligan and Mark O’Shea. The 1st xv have not played since they suffered a 57 – 10 home defeat to Banbridge on the 20th Dec in the AIL. Their task in Limerick will be difficult with Thomond fighting for points.

Fixtures. Sat 24.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Banbridge v Nenagh ormond
Bective Rangers v Cashel RFC
Blackrock College v Old Wesley
Naas v Queens Uni
NUIM Barnhall v Seapoint
Rainey OB v UCC
Skerries v City of Derry
Thomond v Dungannon

Div 2B
Armagh (3rd) v Sundays Well (4th)
Impressive wins in recent weeks, over Malone and Rainey OB have ensured Andy Hughes and his players are ready for the challenge of meeting the Cork side at the Palace grounds on Sat. He will look to key players Neil Faloon, Manihera Eden, Seamus Mallon and Harry Doyle to steer his side through this must win game. Both sides are on 27 points with Sundays Well winning their AIL match with Kanturk last weekend 24 – 15. Again home advantage will decide the outcome of this game.

Ards (16th) v Midleton ( 6th)
There is a belief at Hamilton Park the 1st xv can still retain their AIL status. They have played fifteen matches in the AIL/UCL this season without a win. Their
task on Sat against another Cork side looks like a bridge too far. Director of Rugby Stephen Nutt believes the players are turning the corner with several of the younger players Ross Torney, Gareth McBurney, Paddy Bond and Joel De Pledge impressing on the 1st xv.

Fixtures. Sat 24.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Ards v Midleton
Armagh v Sundays Well
Boyne v Sligo
Greystones v Richmond
Highfield v DLSP
Kanturk v Tullamore
Navan RFC v Bruff
Old Crescent v Wanderers

Ulster Championship League
Belfast Harlequins v Ballynahinch
Quins rested their entire pack that played against Malone in the AIL for their UCL game at home to City of Derry last Sat. The result was a 19 -10 defeat that has ruled out any ambitions they had of winning this league. Both teams have played four matches with Hinch six points ahead in second place as they pursue league leaders City of Derry. Despite the defeat to City of Derry there is an air of optimism at Deramore Park that they have turned the corner after a difficult start to the season. Coach Adam Larkin has seen the return of several front line players from injury with the second xv moving to the top of the second xv league. There is competition for starting places as his 1st xv fight to secure their Div 1B status. Prop Ollie McCollum and hooke Stephen Weir started in the front row against City of Derry with the returning Mark Kettyle getting twenty mins. Willie Stewart came through his match with the second xv along with Callum Leckey who scored three tries in their win. Unfortunately Prop Tom Fraser injured his rib cartilage in his comeback game for the seconds with his fellow prop Paul Greenaway following concussion protocols after being injured in the AIL match at Ballymena. Ballynahinch players were able to avail of a well earned rest after their match at Dungannon was postponed.

Fixture. Sat 24.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Belfast Harlequins v Ballynahinch

Powerade Towns Cup second round
Armagh seconds v Bangor
With Armagh firsts involved in a AIL game at home to Sundays Well, Bangor will be favourites to win this Cup tie. This is a big two weeks for Bangor as they visit County Armagh in consecutive weekends for this Cup tie and Chambers Park, Portadown for their All Ireland Junior Cup final against Dundalk on the 31st January. The Towns Cup is a priority for the North Down team. Hooker Mark Crockfield returns from injury and will be looking to secure a place in the Cup final squad. Armagh seconds surprised Junior Cup finalists Omagh by defeating them 16 – 12 in the first round. Can we expect another upset at the Palace grounds.

Larne v Ballymena seconds
Is their the potential for a real upset at the Glynn on Sat. Ballymena 1st xv have no match on Sat. This will enable Ballymena seconds to field their strongest starting xv. Larne remain top of Q 3 in their quest for promotion this season and have reached the knock out stages of the Gordon West Cup. In the first round Larne came back from a 15 – 3 deficit at HT to defeat Lurgan 22 – 20 at Pollack Park. Larne Captain Ryan Garrett knows it is a big day for Larne on Sat as it has been quite a few years since they have been drawn against local rivals Ballymena. He went on to say, “It is going to be a tough test, but everyone is looking forward to it. Hopefully a big crowd will be out to support the underdogs and who knows, maybe an upset on the cards”. Ballymena seconds have had an indifferent season in the second xv league winning 4/ losing 6. They did reach the quarter finals of the Junior Cup before losing to Enniskillen. Sure to attract a large crowd.

Enniskillen v Ards seconds
On paper you can see only one winner from this match. Skins are going well in the league with ambitions to finish in the top three. They have assembled a strong playing squad that should see them return to Q 1. They did reach the semi finals of the Junior Cup only to lose to eventual winners Instonians. The timely return of the talented Chris McVitty, has added options to the backline for Head coach Norman Richmond. Injuries have ruled out backs James Ferguson and Ashley Finlay. Chris McVitty starts at full back with Nick Finlay returning at out half. Nathan Richmond takes his place in the centre with Ricky Lee in for Jack Harte in the back row. Ards seconds have no wins from twelve matches played in the second xv league. They did run Carrickfergus close at Hamilton Park before losing 12 – 10 in the Junior Cup.

Portadown v Dromore
Probably the tie of the round at Chambers Park. Both sides are level on points in Q 1 as they fight it out to secure that all important top four finish to qualify for the All Ireland Junior Cup. Portadown coach Richard Hedley is looking to bring some silverware to the club this season. He acknowledges it has been a difficult run of late in the league. “Saturday will be another hard match as they lost at their place early in the season”. When the two sides met at Barben Hill in November Dromore ran out winners by 11 – 6. The coach is delighted to welcome back forwards Peter Lamb, Mark Henderson and Gareth McCoy this weekend. Dromore are at full strength with forward Robert Greer available after being injured in the Cooke match after Xmas with Ryan Kerr dropping to the bench. Both sides scored forty points each in their wins over Limavady and Rainey seconds in the 1st round. Another contest that is sure to attract a large crowd.

Donaghadee v Holywood
When these two sides met at Donaldson Park in the Junior Cup in September. The Dee ran out comfortable winners 50 – 5. Last seasons finalists have injury and unavailabilities this week to contend with before Player coach Paul McKenzie can select his starting xv. Holywood have not played since they surprised visitors Lisburn in winning 27 – 8 at Kerr Park in the first round of the Towns Cup. Player unavailability has forced coach Laurence Kelly to look to his second xv for this Cup match. He will rely on Captain Rory Eves and Andrew Davidson to give his side a chance in this Cup tie. Both sides are bottom of Q 1 and Q 2 with the Dee winning two out of twelve league games. Holywood’s record is no wins from eight with only one draw to show for their efforts this season.

Carrickfergus v City of Derry seconds
With City of Derry firsts playing in the AIL this weekend, Carrick have to be the firm favourites to win this cup tie. This is Carricks 150th anniversary year. They want to cap it with a Cup final appearance at the Kingspan stadium on Easter Monday. Head coach Warren McLean has a full strength squad available for this match.

Banbridge seconds v Ballynahinchs seconds
With Bann 1sts playing at home in the AIL; Hinch seconds with their great Cup tradition have to be firm favourites to win this local derby. Bann seconds have played fifteen games in the second xv league, winning eight/ losing seven. Hinch seconds have played ten – winning nine and losing one.

Clogher Valley v Coleraine
Coleraine have disappointed this season in Q 2 after being relegated from Q 1 last season. Their promotion ambitions have been dashed after losing 17 – 15 at Randalstown last Sat with Omagh now clear favourites. They face a difficult trip to the Cran to play current Towns Cup holders Clogher Valley. Rarely does a season go by without the Fivemiletown side winning a piece of silverware. After missing out on the All Ireland Junior Cup and looking likely to finish runners up to Instonians in Q 1 . The Towns Cup is the only piece of silverware left for them to pursue this season. They welcome back scrum half and captain Aaron Best on the back of several league wins. There can only be one winner on Sat.

Fixtures. Sat 24.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Portadown v Dromore
Donaghadee v Holywood
Carrickfergus v City of Derry seconds
Banbridge seconds v Ballynahinch seconds
Armagh seconds v Bangor
larne v Ballymena seconds
Enniskillen v Ards seconds
Clogher Valley v Coleraine

Qualifying Two
Omagh v Randalstown
Fascinating contest at the Thomas Mellon playing fields. Omagh coach Phil Marshall is still missing several key forwards who picked up injuries during December. He has had to blood several of his fringe players as they look to open up some distance on nearest rivals Carrickfergus. Randalstown achieved a memorable last minute 17 – 15 win over Coleraine at Nelisbrook last Sat. They will be missing several players for this trip with Captain Dan Wilson, Dan McGlade, Scott McLenaghan and Ryan Bailey unavailable. Injuries rule out David Goodrich, Emmet Crawford and Scott Stevenson. Coach Gary Longwell has included several of the undefeated second xv who top Junior Four with eleven wins from a eleven. The players given the opportunity to impress the coach include Matt McWhinney, Matty Turner, White, Murray and Kelso.

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