Domestic rugby preview: Sat 31st January 2015, by George Millar

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Despite a full fixture schedule this weekend of All Ireland League rugby and Qualifying action. Our best wishes must go to Bangor rugby club who will contest the final of the Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup against Dundalk at Chambers Park, the home of Portadown rugby club. It is unfortunate that this final is squeezed into a congested fixture programme whereas an occasion like this should and could have been staged at the Kingspan stadium in Belfast. I have no doubt that the Portadown club officials will make everyone welcome for this prestigious Cup final.

The weekend games in the All Ireland league and Qualifying leagues will all be keenly contested as teams push for promotion and bid to avoid relegation with in many cases teams having only six games left to play. We will have Friday night action in the All Ireland League with Queens hosting fellow Ulster side Dungannon at the magnificent Dub Arena with its excellent spectator facilities and stand. This is a great opportunity for rugby supporters to attend a club match and avail of the services provided by Queens for spectators.

Where shall we position the Ulster AIL second xv sides in the leagues. This is a question that has remained unanswered despite efforts by the Ulster Branch in recent seasons.
The latest proposals involve six AIL second xv teams being included in Qualifying One and Two with two teams in Q 1 and four in Q 2. The remainining AIL second xv teams will be introduced into Junior One alongside the Qualifying clubs second xv teams. A question I have to ask is if we are including AIL second xv teams in Junior rugby why are these Ulster AIL clubs competing in the All Ireland League. Last Sat City of Derry were unable to send a second xv team to play Carrickfergus firsts in the quarter final of the Towns Cup. Dungannon conceded their second xv match with Malone seconds as they were unable to select a team. Should these clubs be allowed to play in the All Ireland League. I have to admire the Ards club who despite their difficult playing season were able to send a second xv to play Enniskillen in the Towns Cup. My view is that any AIL club having a second xv playing in Junior One should not be playing in the AIL. We have Ballynahinch third xv who play in Junior One. Their side would defeat most Ulster AIL club second xv teams. Do teams including City of Derry, Dungannon, Rainey OB, Ards, Banbridge and Armagh have a future in the AIL. I suspect the players at Armagh, Banbridge and Rainey may have a different viewpoint. Are these teams going to be able to play Div 1 rugby in the AIL. Having watched Ballynahinch brush aside the challenge of a strong Belfast Harlequins team 58 – 15 last Sat, you can see the gulf that has opened up between them and the rest.

Can we sustain 4/6 clubs in the All Ireland league in Ulster. These difficult questions need to be asked.

With the addition of the AIL second xv teams in the Qualifying leagues we are increasing the number of fixtures players are being asked to play. Has no consideration been given to player welfare and player burn out. Are players not entitiled to rest periods during this congested fixture template we have in Ulster. If we are bringing in the AIL second xv sides , should the number of teams in Q 1 and 2 not be reduced from ten to eight teams. We ask the question why are so many club fixtures being conceded by opponents; you just have to look at the mounting injury lists in our clubs in Ulster. The other three provinces in Ireland don’t seem to have this problem. As I said those incharge of club rugby in Ulster have a duty of care to the players. Do we expect players to be playing in 35+ games per season. This is totally unrealistic. Player welfare comes before profit otherwise our pool of players will continue to diminish and ultimately force some of our clubs out of existence. As I said those in charge of the club game in Ulster have a duty of care to the players. We are not seeing any evidence of this with their latest proposals.

Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup Final
Bangor v Dundalk. Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm. Venue Chambers Park, Portadown
In their first season in this Competition, Bangor have surprised their opponents by making the final. On route they swept aside pre tournament favourites Clonmel on their home turf in Munster. Next up in the quarter finals were the current holders of the Cup, Enniscorthy from Leinster. A piece of magic from their leading points scorer Mark Widdowson ensured a semi final place against last years beaten finalists Clogher Valley at Upritchard Park. They negotiated this match to deservedly secure their place in the final. They will meet current Leinster league leaders Dundalk who required a replay and late penalty to deny Ulster side CIYMS a place in the final. Bangor will be missing the experience of player coach Jason Morgan following surgery but they have the strength in depth to bring the Cup back to Ulster. Captain Jamie Clegg along with their powerful number 8 Curtis Stewart provide the much needed platform for their hard working pack. The evergreen Ricky Armstrong at scrum half has one of the most talented back lines in Ulster rugby to unleash on the Dundalk team. Difficult game to call. Lets hope the All Ireland Junior Cup will find its place into the trophy cabinet at Upritchard Park on Sat night.

Ulster Bank All Ireland League
Div 1A
(5th)Ballynahinch v Landsdowne(1st)
The goal for coaches Derek Suffern and Charlie McAleese is to see their players secure that all important place in the top four and make the playoffs in the clubs sixty anniversary season. His team are eight points behind second place Terenure College and fifteen points behind league leaders Landsdowne. They have six matches remaining with two at home and four away. A trip to the 4G pitch at the Aviva stadium is a daunting challenge for the County Down side against the 2012/13 league winners. The Ballymacarn team have yet to win on the road this season. A statistic that does not reflect how unlucky they have been to pick up those all important wins and crucially points. Selection will be difficult for the coaches with a full squad available. The timely return of second row Kenny Morton is welcome addition to the squad. One player to watch out for is their explosive centre Jordan Gratton who has grabbed his opportunity to hold down one of the mid field positions. Winger Chris Quinn put on a 10 out of 10 kicking performance against Belfast Harlequins last Sat to finish up with a personal tally of 23 points in their emphatic 58 -15 win. They will need to add twenty percent to their performance if they are going to cause one of the biggest upsets in the AIL this season against the AIL favourites. Should be a thriller. When the two sides met at Ballymacarn in October the men in green ran out 14 – 10 winners. Manager Ronnie Duncan acknowledges that his team face an inform Landsdowne team who will be looking to reverse the earlier defeat at Ballymacarn. Second row John Donnan is expected to replace Kenny Morton, who will drop to the bench. Otherwise the pack will be the same as last weekend with Stuart Orr added to the bench. The backline will remain the same with Robin Harte and either Richard Reaney or James McBriar completing the bench replacements.

Fixtures Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Landsdowne v Ballynahinch
Cork Constitution v St Mary’s College
Old Belvedere v Young Munster
Terenure College v Dolphin
UCD v Clontarf

Div 1B

(4th)Ballymena v UL Bohemians(9th)
The Braid men have had a three week rest in preparation for their final six matches. With Galwegians, Garryowen, Dublin Uni and Ballymena battling it out for the top two places, Coach Andy Graham will be looking maximum points from this game. Bohs may have been struggling at the the wrong end of the table, but they have been able to call on Ireland under 20 number 8 Jack O’Donoghue and Munster A centre David Johnston to strengthen their team. Ulster players Andy Warwick and Dave Ryan will certainly boost coach Andy Graham’s options in the front row, with Ricky Andrews sure to make his presence felt in the backs. Ireland Club xv players Connor Smyth and Stephen Mulholland are also available for selection.

(6th)Malone v Dublin Uni((3rd)
The East Belfast side have lost their last three matches against the students from Dublin. The students on the back of a nine match undefeated run will be firm favourites to win this contest at Gibson Park on Sat. Points are vital for coach Jacque Benade and his players as they battle to avoid relegation. They suffered a humiliating 32 – 12 defeat in their last AIL outing against Belfast Harlequins at Deramore Park. With games remaining at home against Galwegians, Ballymena and Shannon and two diffcult trips away to Limerick to play Bohs and promotion chasing Garryowen the players will have to dig deep in the coming weeks to retain their DIv 1B status. Ulster players Conor Joyce and Paul Jackson have been released with Bronson Ross and Louis Stevenson being retained by Ulster. Second row options are limited with the unavailability of Alan O’Connor, now starring on the Ulster side with James McAllister and Richard Millar on the injured list.

(7th)Belfast Harlequins v Garryowen(2nd)
Quins coach Adam Larkin will be pleased by his teams performances in their last three AIL matches that has seen them move of the bottom of the table into seventh place. Two points separate the bottom five sides in this league with every point crucial. The added presence of Ulster players Neil McComb, Michael Heaney, Rory Scholes and Frankie Taggart will be needed against a Limerick side looking to bounce straight back after relegation last season.

Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Galwegians v Buccaneers. Played Friday 30.1.15. Kick off 7.30pm
Ballymena v UL Bohemians
Garryowen v Belfast Harlequins
Malone v Dublin Uni
Shannon v Corinthians

Div 2A

(5th)Queens Uni v Dungannon(16th)
With six matches remaining, Queens have their work cut out to finish in the top two and secure promotion. A surprising 34 – 20 defeat away to Naas last Sat has seriously dented their top two ambitions. Six points separate the sides in second to tenth place. With three matches remaining at home including fixtures against Blackrock College and NUIM Barnhall along with trips away to City of Derry, Neneagh and Skerries the students will need to dig deep in their remaining matches. Coach Bob Young has a talented squad at his disposal this season. His selection has been hampered by players involved with the Ulster Ravens and Ireland under 20 preparations for the Six Nations. Lack of continuity and consistency in their play has frustrated the coaching staff as they prepare for this vital run in. Dungannon Head coach Nigel Brady has a small playing squad to work with at Stevenson Park this season. They put up a spirited performance before losing 33 – 18 away to Thomond last weekend. Can they upset the students at the Dub Arena on Friday night.

(8th)Banbridge v UCC (11th)
Bann coach Daniel Soper was delighted with his teams 20 – 7 win over Nenagh ormond last Sat. He has set his side the target of winning their remaining matches and finishing second in Div 2A. Is it achievable. A win in Cork this weekend against the students will heighten those ambitions. Dungannon won at the Mardyke.

(12th)Rainey OB v Blackrock College(2nd)
Despite their last minute defeat to UCC at home last Sat by 25 -22 coach Richard Boyd is looking forward to taking his young squad to play Blackrock College at Stradbrook on Sat. He describes it as a challenge for his players. The squad have been training hard and they know they are not far away with their recent performances. He was delighted with the resolve and character shown by the players against the students to come back from a 18 – 3 deficit to take a 22 – 18 lead. Unfortunately the players could not hold on for what would have been an excellent win. For the match in Dublin, Stephen Rutledge, Joe Roe and the experienced Neil O’Kane make up the front row. The only other change in the pack is David Dawson coming into the second row to replace the unavailable Tim Barker. Conor O’Neil, Johnny Lees and the impressive Conor Simpson continue in the back row. The back line remains unchanged with Michael Pyper and Timmy Emerson continuing at nine and ten. Captain Jody McMurray and the exciting Ross McCloskey continue their partnership in the midfield. Gavin Martin, Mark O’Connor and Alan Clarke continue in the back three.

(13th)City of Derry v Bective Rangers(15th)
New Head coach Terry McMaster was disappointed with his teams defeat at Skerries 19 – 17 last Sat. Despite a last gasp effort they were unlucky not to come away with a win. This is a must win game for Derry this weekend. They are only five points behind tenth place Naas and can still avoid the drop into the fourth tier of AIL rugby. Out half Richard McCarter is unavailable with back row forward Richard Baird facing a late fitness test. Richard Peoples comes into fill the ten shirt with Mark Walker on stand by for the back row.

Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. kick off 2.30pm
Queens Uni v Dungannon. Played Friday 30.1.15. Kick off 7.30pm
Seapoint v Naas
Skerries v NUIM Barnhall
Blackrock College v Rainey OB
Cashel RFC v Thomond
City of Derry v Bective Rangers
Old Wesley v Nenagh Ormond
UCC v Banbridge

Div 2B

(6th)Armagh v DLSP(13th)
A narrow 13 – 11 defeat to another Cork side at home, has set back the ambitions of Andy Hughes and his team to finish in the top four and keep their place in the fourth tier of Irish rugby. They have six matches remaining with two at home and four away including this weekends trip to Dublin to play a DLSP side fighting to avoid finishing in the bottom three of this league.

(16th)Ards v Wanderers(12th)
With a reorganisation of the coaching team at Ards, Director of rugby Stephen Nutt is hoping his players can still avoid relegation from the AIL. They were emphatically defeated at home by Midleton last Sat and face a difficult trip away to play a Wanderers side looking points to avoid finishing in the bottom three places.

Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Bruff v Old Crescent. Played Friday 30.1.15. Kick off 7.30pm
Midleton v Highfield
DLSP v Armagh
Richmond v Boyne
Sligo v Navan
Tullamore v Greystones
Wanderers v Ards
Sundays Well moved their fixture with Kanturk to the 16.1.15, winning 24 – 15.

Qualifying One

(9th)Ballymoney v Dromore(5th)
Both sides need the points with a resurgent Ballymoney fighting to retain their Q 1 status with six matches remaining. Dromore have two matches in hand as they look to finish in the top four and qualify to play in the AIL Junior Cup. With Ballymoney, defeating Portadown 17 – 0 at home and losing narrowly away to Bangor, Dromore will have their work cut out to get any points from this match. Dromore won the corresponding fixture at Barben Hill in October between these two sides convincingly 42 – 15. They will be looking to bounce back from their 35 – 11 defeat away to Portadown last Sat in the Towns Cup.

(7th)CIYMS v Instonians(1st)
This is probably the match of the day in Q 1 with Instonians looking to hold on to their undefeated run with CIYMS hoping to secure that all important fourth place in this league. Every match is a Cup final for Head coach Gareth Fry and his players. They are coming off two solid wins over Cooke and Ballyclare and will present Inst coach William Leacock and his players with a stern challenge. Three points separate four teams, Ballyclare, Dromore, Portadown and CIYMS as they compete with each other for that all important AIL Junior Cup place. When the teams met at Shawsbridge in October, Inst ran out winners by 20 – 6. The Inst team are determined to go through the season undefeated. Should be a cracking spectacle for spectators at Belmont on Sat.

(8th)Cooke v Ballyclare(4th)
With Ballymoney pursuing Cooke to avoid finishing in the bottom two. Player/Coach Colin Atkinson knows his Cooke side can’t afford to slip up in their pursuit of retaining their Q 1 status. He will be looking to the team that defeated Donaghadee two weeks ago 35 – 13 to win this match.. Ballyclare coach Chris Campbell is looking to halt a three match losing run. Their hold on fourth place is tenuous as the chasing pack close in around them with Bangor stretching their third place lead to eleven points. Ballyclare manager Peter Kirk puts his teams form down to inconsistences due to player unavailability and injuries. Training has been positive with the players determined to reverse recent results. Gareth Byers starts at scrum half with Steven Bailey restored at full back.

(10th)Donaghadee v Portadown(6th)
This game has significance for both teams with the Dee running out of matches as they look to avoid relegation. Portadown have been amongst the teams chasing league honours in recent seasons. This season they are struggling to finish in the top four despite their impressive run in the Towns Cup. Coach Richard Hedley wants his players to use their form, from this Cup run to halt a four match losing run in the league. Big game for both sides.

Clogher Valley have a free weekend as their opponents Bangor are playing in the final of the AIL Junior Cup.

Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Ballymoney v Dromore
CIYMS v Instonians
Cooke v Ballyclare
Donaghadee v Portadown

Qualifying Two

(4th)Coleraine v Omagh(1st)
It has been a disappointing season for a Coleraine side that was expected to mount a challenge along with leaders Omagh this season. Home and away defeats to Carrickfergus and Randalstown have stifled the ambitions of the North coast side with fourteen points separating these two teams. Omagh coach Phil Marshall hast lost influential Captain and tighthead Mark Smyth for 3/4 weeks through injury. He is planning to make five changes to the forwards for the weekend trip to Coleraine with Mervyn Edgar and Peter Todd starting in the front row with Jamie Sproule and Mark Miller reunited in the second row and Richard Harpur starting at seven. With a match in hand and a six point lead, fixtures involving Coleraine, Enniskillen and Carrickfergus in the coming weeks will go a long way to deciding the winners of this league.

(6th)Enniskillen v Academy((3rd)
Skins have ambitions to finish in the top three of this league. They have scored twenty two tries in their last four matches as they prepare for a difficult Towns Cup fixture with Ballynahinch seconds in two weeks. After this weekend they have a return derby with near neighbours Omagh next Sat. For a team that narrowly missed relegation by one point to Q 3 the turnaround in performances has alot to do with the appointment of Norman Richmond as Head coach where he is assisted by Ashley Finlay and Captain Jamie Johnston. They have assembled a playing squad of thirty players that are challenging weekly for first xv places. Academy coach Gareth Lynn will be looking for his players to reverse the 18 – 13 loss they suffered at Roughfort when the two sides met two weeks ago.

(10th)Holywood v Lisburn((8th)
For coaches Laurence Kelly and Mark Crothers this is a must win match for both these sides as they look to avoid relegation to Q 3. When the two sides met at Blaris in Sept, Lisburn were winners by 24 – 19. When the two sides met at Kerr Park in the first round of the Towns Cup on the 3rd January, Holywood pulled off a 27 -8 win. Will we see a repeat performance this weekend. Lisburn have bounced back from that defeat to record a 20 – 16 win at home to Grosvenor. Holywood lost 41 – 17 away to Donaghadee last Sat in the Towns Cup after putting up a gutsy performance. Will be an interesting contest at Kerr Park on Sat.

(5th)Randalstown v Grosvenor(7th)
After defeating Coleraine 17 – 15 at home, Randalstown were brought down to earth by a rampant Omagh backline in their 52 – 6 defeat last Sat at the Thomas Mellon playing fields. Injuries and unavailabilities depleted coaches Gary Longwell and Alastair Stronge of several key players. It was also an opportunity for some players to stake a claim for a starting place on the 1st xv. This week sees the return of Ryan Bailey at 10., David Goodrich at 13 and Dan McGlade on the wing. Young Andy White retains his place on the wing in the absence of the injured Emmet Crawford. In the pack Gary Irwin continues at loose head after a strong performance at Omagh. Hooker Scott Stevenson remains on the injured list with Neil Foster continuing in his absence. The second row remains the same with last weeks debutant Thomas Kelso ( Randalstown’s man of the match last Sat)packing down with David Millar. Captain Dan Wilson returns in the back row alongside Peter Knowles and Chris Allen. Grosvenor were surprisingly defeated at Lisburn two weeks ago by 20 – 16.

(9th)UUC v Carrickfergus(2)
On paper this should be a straight forward win for Carrick. Two weeks ago UUC travelled to Enniskillen. After leading 7 – 5 at HT the students were eventually beaten 36 – 7 by the Fermanagh side. Carrick were disappointed by the non appearance of City of Derry seconds to play them in the Towns Cup last Sat. They have a strong side that are still in pusuit of promotion in the clubs 150th anniversary season. With a trip to Donaghadee in two weeks time and a place at stake in the Towns Cup semi final, Head coach Warren McLean and his Captain Jonny Cullen know the players have to remain focused during this crucial period. There is the potential for an upset at the weekend with the students battling for points to remain in Q 2.

Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. kick off 2.30pm
Coleraine v Omagh
Enniskillen v Academy
Holywood v Lisburn
Randalstown v Grosvenor
UUC V Carrickfergus

Qualifying Three
Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
Lurgan v Limavady
Ophir v Donegal Town
PSNI v Larne

Qualifying Four
Fixtures. Sat 31.1.15. Kick off 2.30pm
BHSFP v Letterkenny
Cavan v Londonderry YMCA
Monaghan v VIrginia

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