Ulster Rugby Senior League Preview Saturday 8th February 2014 by George Millar
It is Ulster Senior League action this weekend as the twelve teams compete in round nine with two rounds of fixtures left on the 22nd Feb and the 8th March that will decide the destiny of the Stevenson Shield this season.
Current holders Ballynahinch remain one point behind leaders Ballymena with the meeting of the two sides at Ballymacarn Park on the 22nd Feb deciding the 2013/14 league champions. The inclement weather last weekend meant Ulster sides Banbridge, Rainey, Ballymena and Instonians had their AIL fixtures postponed due to waterlogged pitches. For these sides the games this weekend are ideal preparation before they resume AIL action on the 15th Feb. Ulster sides Ballynahinch, Dungannon, Ballymena, City of Derry and Instonians will be looking for morale boosting wins before they resume promotion and relegation battles in the AIL. Belfast Harlequins have been the top performing Ulster team in the AIL during January recording three wins followed by Malone with two wins and a narrow loss at Corinthians. Rainey coach Richard Boyd will have been pleased with his team’s two back to back wins in the AIL. Supporters should note that several of these fixtures have been rescheduled for Thursday and Friday night this week due to the Six Nations match between Ireland and Wales on Sat 8th Feb with a 2.30PM KO. Key Schools Cup games on Saturday morning have prohibited early kick offs in other games.
Banbridge(8th) v Dungannon(11th). Played Friday 7th February. KO 7.45PM
After a run of four defeats in the AIL and USL Daniel Soper’s team bounced back with an impressive 28 – 13 win at home to City of Derry in the AIL. There is talent in abundance throughout the playing squad with their inability to develop some consistency this season holding back their progress. You would expect the Rifle Park side to have too much strength in depth over a depleted Dungannon side missing their strong Ulster contingent. Paddy John’s team, need a win after a run of eight defeats in the AIL and the USL. Banbridge to win.
Ards(12th) v City of Derry(4th) Played Sat 8th February. KO 12.30PM
The County Down side have shown commendable resilience in defeating Skerries and suffering narrow losses to Richmond and Navan in the AIL during January. With a difficult AIL game away to Greystones on the 15th Feb, coaches Stewart Porter and Gerry Flynn will look for a confidence boosting performance from their team this weekend. City of Derry were riding high after defeating Ballymena at home in the beginning of Jan. Successive defeats to Banbridge and Highfield have dented their AIL promotion ambitions. Important game for both sets of coaches. City of Derry to win
Armagh(10th) v Belfast Harlequins(7th)Played Friday 7th February. KO 7.45PM.
On current form you would have expected Quins to be competing for the USL this season. To date they are the only side to have defeated Ballynahinch in the USL when they defeated them 17 – 14 at Ballymacarn Park in September. During this same period, this was the only match, Quins won out of eight games.From the beginning of November Quins have went on to win eight of their last eleven games. For coach Adam Larkin the availability of the Ulster players has strenghtened his 1st xv. In addition players such as Mark Best, Daniel Dass and Liam Cambridge have become key players on the 1st xv. Strength in depth has created competition for places. It is no coincidence that the upturn in form coincided with the return to playing of club Captain Neil Simpson. Armagh coach Andrew Hughes will have been disappointed in his sides 21 – 5 AIL defeat away to second place Greystones last Sat. Their away form down South, has seen them lose three out of four games this season. They remain undefeated at home in the AIL. Bottom side Suttonians visit the Palace Grounds on the 15th Feb with the Orchard County side looking a win to take into this game. Quins to win.
Ballymena(1st) v Malone(3rd)Played Thursday 6th February. KO 7.30PM
Interesting game under the new floodlights at Eaton Park. Ballymena have been rampant in the USL scoring 323pts and conceding 110pts in eight matches; averaging forty points per match. Malone have the second best defensive record in the USL conceding 91pts with Hinch on 80pts and Ballymena on 110pts.January has been a disappointing month for the Eaton Park side as they suffered defeats to City of Derry and Cashel in the AIL seriously denting their AIL promotion hopes. Coach Andy Graham will be looking an improved performance from his forwards who were out muscled by Munster side Cashel at home. The priority for the Braid side is to secure promotion back to AIL 1B. Now they are sitting top of the USL with three games remaining they will not want to slip up in this tricky fixture against an inform Malone side. Malone have a difficult AIL game away to UL Bohemians on the 15th Feb and that match will be the priority for the coaches Jacque Benade and Gareth Fry as they fight to avoid relegation. Winning helps to maintain confidence and the East Belfast side will look for a strong performance before travelling to Limerick. The Malone side have only lost once in their last six AIL and USL outings. When the two sides met in the Ulster Senior Cup at Gibson Park in Sept, Malone ran out comfortable 43 – 10 winners. Ballymena to win.
Ballynahinch(2nd) v Instonians(9th).Played Saturday 8th February. KO 2.30PM
2014 has proved a difficult opening for the men in ‘Green’ from Ballymacarn Park. Successive defeats to Dolphin and Garryowen in the AIL has trapped the County Down side in a relegation battle with Garryowen at the bottom of AIL 1A. Coaches Derek Suffern and Charlie McAleese will look to their successful second xv to lift the fortunes of the club. His players need to embrace the Munster appetite for battles to avoid relegation. Where is the ‘Fire in the Belly’ approach we are so used to seeing from the players on the Hinch 1st xv. For Instonians coach William Leacock this game is important in restoring confidence to a side that faces a crucial relegation match at home to Tullamore the following Sat. He has talent in his young squad that will have to fight for every point in their remaining games. Ballynahinch will not want to relinquish their hold on the Stevenson Shield, before the all important league decider against Ballymena at Ballymacarn on the 22nd Feb. Ballynahinch to win
Rainey(6th) v Queens(5th) Played Sat 8th February. KO 2.30PM
This is the first leg of the double header between these two sides over the next eight days in the USL/AIL. With Queens slipping up at Cashel last Sat and a resurgent Rainey producing back to back wins in the AIL the contest at the Dub next Sat will be crucial to both sides. As Queens demonstrated in their meetings with City of Derry in the USL/AIL; that USL win by 50 -15 was followed by a convincing 31 – 5 at home in the AIL. This first encounter maybe regarded as unimportant, but looking at how Rainey faltered in their meetings with City of Derry the winner of the game this Sat will definetely have the psychological advantage come next weekend. No doubt the approaches of both coaches to team selection this weekend will determine the winner over the next two weekends. Fascinating contest in prospect. Rainey to win.