Ulster Bank – All Ireland League.
This Saturday the opening fixtures in the Ulster Bank sponsored All Ireland League take place. 52 clubs representing the four provinces will compete in four leagues. Leinster are represented by 20 teams, Munster 16 teams, Ulster 12 teams and Connacht 4 teams. Division 1A and 1B have ten teams each playing home and away. Promotion and relegation between 1A and 1B is decided on one automatic and one decided by a playoff between the second bottom team in 1A and the team placed second in 1B. Divisions 2A and 2B consist of 16 teams each playing 15 games. Promotion and relegation between 2A and 2B would be two automatic and one by playoff between the team third from bottom in 2A and the team third from the top of 2B. Promotion and relegation between 1B and 2A would be automatic two up and two down. Promotion to Division 2B involves a round robin tournament involving the four Provincial Junior League winners. The bottom team in 2B is automatically relegated with the winners of the round robin auomatically promoted to Division 2B. The second placed team in the round robin tournament will play the second bottom team in 2B to decide the team that will play in Division 2B. The team that finishes top of their respective Division will be deemed to be the divisional league champions with the winners of Division 1A deemed to be the All Ireland league champions.
Division 1A – Has 5 Leinster teams, 4 Munster teams and 1 Ulster team.
Ballynahinch v Cork Constitution
Garryowen v Dolphin
Landsdowne v UCD
Old Belvedere v Clontarf
St Marys College v Young Munster
Ballynahinch are Ulster’s sole representative in this league after winning promotion from Division 1B last season. They have lost several players including Michael Lawton, Chris Quinn, James Thompson and Conor Carey, but have strengthened their squad with the addition of prop Chris Taylor from Malone, Banbridge front row players Johnny Murphy and Michael Cromie along with Dominic Gallagher from Trinity. Queens winger Ross Adair has made the switch. Their exciting kiwi out half Richie Lobb has become a prolific points scorer for his team during the Ulster league campaign. Coaches Derek Suffern and Charlie McAleese know the back bone of the team is made of Captain Stuart Morrow who is ably assisted by Adam Craig, Harry McAleese and forwards Chris Napier, Neil Faloon and Michael Graham. The release of Ulster players will influence the challenge the Hinch team can mount in this league. Expect a large crowd at Ballymacarn Park to urge the Hinch on to an opening day league win over Cork Constitution. The Munster men had a convincing 35 – 15 away win over UL Bohemians in the Munster Senior Cup last Saturday.
Division 1B – Has 3 Leinster teams, 3 Ulster teams, 2 Munster teams, 2 Connacht teams.
Belfast Harlequins v Buccaneers
Dublin Univ v Corinthians
Malone v Dungannon
Shannon v Blackrock
Terenure v UL Bohemians
Belfast Harlequins will rely on their Ulster players to mount a challenge in this league. The inclusion of Michael Heaney and Neil McComb enabled the team to secure an unexpected and morale boosting win at Ballynahinch last Saturday. The addition of Ulster Under 20 centre Mark Best will strengthen the back line. Coach Adam Larkin knows a win is crucial against the Connacht men who have lost their last three Connacht league and Cup games. Not ideal preparation. The injured Rory Scholes will be a blow to the Quins team. Quins have lost several players this season including Michael Ferguson to Malone as forwards coach.
The Ulster derby at Gibson Park between Malone and Dungannon will be sure to attract a large crowd. Dungannon have lost several players from their playing squad including Jaryd Bennett, Michael Dunleavy, Derek Hall, Stuart McKenzie with Philip Whyte and David Egner returning to Bangor and Grosvenor. Both Paul Magee and Glen Telford have retired. Club Captain James Bates has joined from Clogher Valley along with Portadown duo Mal Allister and Chris Cousens from Portadown and Cormac McCartney from Ballymoney. Injuries have ruled out influential second row Mark Jenkinson and back row forward James McMahon. Coach Paddy Johns will be looking to the Ulster coaches to release Chris Cochrane, Peter Nelson, Stuart McCloskey, Chris Farrell and Adam Macklin to bolster the playing strength of the first xv. Malone will have Ulster players Alan O’Connor, Conor Joyce, James McKinney ( if released) along with Under 20 players Ross Kane, Ben Alexander and Rob Haldane to add to their playing squad along with player/coach Michael Ferguson.
Division 2A – Has 5 Ulster teams, 5 Munster teams, 5 Leinster teams and 1 Connacht team.
Queens v Highfield
Ballymena v Galwegians
Bruff v Barnhall
Cashel v Banbridge
City of Derry v Rainey
Old Wesley v Old Crescent
Seapoint v Bective
UCC v Naas
Queens have demonstrated they will be serious contenders for promotion this season after a strong showing in the Ulster Senior League and their Dudley Cup success over Trinity. With the returning Under 20 and 19 squad players Robbie Moore and his coaching team will have a few selection headaches. Highfield lost narrowly to Old Crescent 22 – 18 after extra time in the Munster Senior Cup last Sat.
Ballymena will be tested at Eaton Park by a Galwegians team that remains undefeated, having secured wins over Buccaneers in both the Connacht Senior Cup and league. The coaching team will be pleased with the performances of their team in the Ulster Senior league. Home win is essential for Ballymena to bounce back from relegation last season.
Banbridge have a tough opening fixture away to Cashel. The Munster men caused an upset in the Munster Senior Cup last Sat winning 28 – 18 away to rivals Young Munster who play in Division 1A. Scrum half and club Captain Ian Porter will prove vital to the clubs promotion ambitions after missing out narrowly last season. Coach Daniel Soper will be looking a strong performance from his team.
City of Derry and Rainey meet in another Ulster derby at Judges Road. Both teams have performed strongly in the Ulster Senior league with Rainey top of the table after four wins. They suffered a recent 48 – 8 loss to City of Derry in the Ulster Senior Cup at Hatrick Park. Rainey went through Division 2B last season undefeated as league winners. With the addition of players including Colin Mitchell and Stephen Mulholland they have the playing strength to mount a promotion challenge. The respective coaches Mark Nicholl and Ashley Blair at Derry and Richard Boyd and John Andrews at Rainey have big ambitions for both their playing squads this season. Derry Captain David Funston knows his players will have to perform at the top of their game to secure a home win.
Division 2B- Leinster have 7 teams, Munster 5 teams, Ulster 3 teams, Connacht 1 team.
Ards v Suttonians
Armagh v DLSP
Boyne v Richmond
Greystones v Tullamore
Navan v Sligo
Nenagh v Middleton
Skerries v Instonians
Thomond v Sundays Well
Despite no wins from four Ulster Senior league outings Ards would be expected to win this opening fixture at home to Suttonians. They performed strongly against Rainey, Dungannon and Instonians and lost narrowly away to Queens 8 – 6. Key players for Ards will be the returning Stuart Paul along with Scott Young and Mark Bamford. Coach Stewart Porter has worked hard to avoid the perennial relegation battle Ards are drawn into each season. Suttonians lost 57 – 0 to Naas in the Leinster shield last weekend.
Armagh coaches Andy Hughes and player coach Seamus Mallon will have been pleased by the endeavour shown by his squad in their early season matches. DLSP will be difficult opposition. Home win crucial for the team.
Instonians have impressed with their early season form. They have strengthened their squad considerably under the guidance of their coaching team of William Leacock, Mark McDowell and Keith Crossan. They will travel South with alot of confidence. A win could see the men from Shaws bridge mount a serious promotion challenge.