Ulster Senior League Preview Saturday 21st December 2013 by George Millar

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Week seven of the Ulster Senior League leaves Ballymena topping the table with 26pts, one point ahead of current league champions Ballynahinch. The question being asked: are our clubs in Ulster playing too many fixtures. With Senior clubs involved in pre season friendlies, Ulster Senior league, Ulster Senior Cup and AIL we have players turning out for their twentieth game this weekend prior to Xmas. The Senior clubs in Munster and Connacht are playing in only one game during the AIL break with the Leinster clubs having a four week break. In Munster Garryowen play Cork Constitution at Thomond Park in the final of the Munster Senior Cup on Friday the 20th December 2013. Galwegians play Corinthians at Crowley Park in the Connacht Senior Cup final the same night. In Leinster the final of the Leinster Senior Cup was played on Friday the 15th November with UCD defeating Terenure 23 – 18. The Leinster Senior clubs using Clontarf as an example have been able to give their first team squad time off after their last AIL game on the 7th December before resuming training for their AIL game on the 4th January 2014. Is there lessons for Ulster rugby. Several clubs have indicated to me that they would prefer to see the Ulster Senior League split in two to reduce the number of games played. This would allow the players additional rest time. Is that the way forward!!! The Ulster Branch may consider looking at the fixture arrangements in the other provinces. There is a morale reponsibility on the Ulster Branch to lead in promoting player welfare.

Armagh v Ards

The County Armagh side recorded an impressive 17 – 16 win at home to fellow AIL 2B side Instonians last Saturday after coming back from a 16 – 3 deficit at the Palace grounds. Armagh coach Andy Hughes put his sides comeback down to their fitness levels. He rested six of his front line players and gave game time to Squad players Andy Morton, Gareth Warnock, Matthew Wright, John McDonagh, Peter Eves, Peter Bassett and Matthew Steenson. The strength of the Armagh squad is built on the players coming through from their Youth structure and the Royal School Armagh. Ards continue to struggle and despite a strong first half performance at Ballymena they ended up losing 50 – 0 and conceding eight tries. Captain Rob McCausland and Head coach Stewart Porter will look to Saturday’s game to restore confidence to the side. Armagh to win

City of Derry v Banbridge

After building up a comfortable 14 – 3 lead at Deramore Park- Derry allowed Belfast Harlequins to come back and score two late tries to win 15 – 14 last Saturday. The North West side coninue to rotate their playing squad using Gareth Beatty, Cathal Cregan, Paul McFeely, Jonny Lyons, Jack Caithness, Mark Robinson and Jack Hargan in their outing at Quins. Expect coaches Mark Nicholl and Ashley Blair to use these players to build their squad for the second half of the AIL. Banbridge have recorded three consecutive wins and will want to keep the winning habit amongst their tight knit squad as they look to push up the table in Division 2A. New scrum half Lee Steenson from Dromore has formed an exciting half back partnership with Adam Doherty. In the absence of club Captain Ian Porter the experienced second row forward Simon McKinstry leads a formidable pack that has been well drilled by former Ulster and Ireland prop Simon Best. Brothers Matthew and Stephen Irvine continue to impress in the back row. Banbridge to win.

Instonians v Dungannon

Both clubs will be looking for a confidence boosting win after a poor run of results. Inst coach William Leacock was disappointed that his side surrendered a 16 – 3 lead at Armagh last saturday to lose 17 – 16. He will be looking to his squad to repeat the performance they recorded in their last 36 – 6: five try win over Ards in the AIL three weeks ago at Shaws bridge. The County Tyrone side continue to struggle without their Ulster players exposing their lack of strength in depth. Coach Paddy Johns has much work to do to turn round the fortunes of the Stevenson Park club. Instonians to win

Malone v Belfast Harlequins

The Cregagh Road side will be delighted with their five tries in their 25 – 3 win at Stevenson Park last Saturday. Captain Neil Alcorn turned in a man of the match performance scoring three tries. Coaches Jacque Benade and Gareth Fry used the match to give game time to squad players Rob Haldane, Michael Rainey, Ben McDonnell, Gary Crawford, Lee McClure, Nathan Brown, Andrew Kelly, and Rob Falls. Belfast Harlequins won their AIL meeting with Malone five weeks ago 25 -15 after coming back from a 18 -3 and 25 – 10 deficit. They showed their fighting qualities again last Saturday at home to City of Derry to come back from 14 – 3 to win 15 -14. The return of Captain Neil Simpson has seen the Deramore Park side move up to mid table in Division 1B of the AIL. Half backs Josh Fullerton and Liam Cambridge continue to impress.
Belfast Harlequins to win

Queens v Ballynahinch

A depleted student side lost 18 – 6 last Saturday away to the ever improving Banbridge. Coach Patrick Armstrong is using this window to expose his fringe players in the Ulster Senior League before they resume their AIL programme on the 11th January 2014. The Ulster Senior Cup winners will represent Ulster in the ALL Ireland Bateman Cup in the new year. He has been impressed by the performances of John Russell, Conor Spence, Justin Rea and Eoin Devlin in the backs along with Jonny Craig, David Swann, Nigel Simpson and Ben Howard in the forwards. Ballynahinch coach Derek Suffern will be pleased to have Michael Lawton available during this Ulster Senior league period. Injuries continue to deplete his first xv playing squad. He will have been pleased by the performance of his second xv in winning the Junior Cup on Wednesday night. The defeat to the students in the Ulster Senior Cup Final last week 16 – 10 will spur on the Co Down men to maintain their pursuit of Ballymena in the Ulster Senior league. The Ballymacarn side will not want to relinquish their hold on the Stevenson Shield. Ballynahinch to win.

Rainey v Ballymena

Can the Magherfelt side topple the current front runners in the league. Any hope of Rainey challenging for the league disappeared in their 24 – 15 defeat at second place Ballynahinch last Saturday. Rainey coach Richard Boyd will know his squad have to start winning matches to build confidence in his squad. The loss of their South African hooker George Fritz to a long term injury has been a big blow to the team. Captain Neil O’Kane has to lift his players. Ballymena have so much strength in depth as illustrated last week by winger Michael Johnston who scored three tries to add to the two he scored recently against Armagh. Coach Andy Graham wants the players on the second xv to push for places on the first xv. They are certainly making a case with several of the Ballymena squad involved in the recent Ulster Ravens fixtures. The Eaton Park side want promotion back to Division 1B this season. Strength in depth is crucial for the new year run in. Ballymena to win.

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