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Relegation-threatened Limerick clubs set for crucial Friday night derby

Another big weekend of AIL action kicks off with the clash of Young Munster and Shannon at Tom Clifford Park.

All-Ireland League, Division 1A (Saturday, 2.30pm unless stated)

Cork Constitution v UCC, Temple Hill, Friday 8pm

John Hodnett John Hodnett starts for UCC tonight. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

TWO TEAMS WITH contrasting aims entering the penultimate round, Cork Constitution needing one more win to secure a home semi-final and UCC fighting for their Division 1A lives. The Cork students have found form at just the right time, climbing into seventh place after victories over Shannon and Young Munster.

UCC’s last three away trips have resulted in narrow losses — incredibly they scored 29 points in each game — and they feel they owe Cork Con one after November’s narrow loss at the Mardyke. Jack O’Sullivan’s Munster ‘A’ call-up comes at a bad time but Ireland U20 Grand Slam winner John Hodnett is a more than able deputy at number eight.

Alex McHenry, Sean French and Ross O’Neill are also on Cara Cup duty and absent for Constitution, who will want to banish memories of a couple of below-par performances recently against University sides.

Tonight’s derby brings together the division’s two top scorers, out-halves Aidan Moynihan and James Taylor, who have amassed a whopping 263 points between them.

Young Munster v Shannon, Tom Clifford Park, Friday 8pm

Ronan Coffey celebrates a penalty from a scrum It's a big night for Shannon. Source: Ben Whitley/INPHO

One of the biggest crowds of the season is expected at Greenfields for the top-flight’s final Limerick derby of the season. With both clubs teetering on the brink of relegation, Young Munster and Shannon are sure to give it everything they have with every point so important in these deciding weeks.

Young Munster have been hardest hit by the province’s Cara Cup trip to Boston, losing four starters from the last round, but other players will take on responsibility in their absence. Young centre Luke Fitzgerald has caught the eye with two tries in the last three games, while forwards Dan Walsh and Fintan Coleman have provided impact off the bench.

Shannon’s streetwise head coach Tom Hayes, who is determined to end their six-match losing streak, told SRTV: “It’s obviously a really special occasion and the circumstances of league position puts an extra bit of bearing on it as well. We’ll focus on being the best that we can be and see where it takes us.”

Clontarf v Terenure College, Castle Avenue

Angus Lloyd Clontarf's Angus Lloyd. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

These two teams are playing some of the best attacking rugby at the moment. Four straight wins have Clontarf honing in on a home semi-final, and even if they manage to dispatch Terenure tomorrow, next week’s trip to Lansdowne is shaping up to be a straight shootout for the second and third placings.

Sam Coghlan Murray’s two-try salvo steered ‘Nure past Shannon a fortnight ago, making it four victories in six rounds. Given the two sides above them meet tonight (they are level with Shannon and two points behind Munsters), James Blaney’s men will know exactly where they stand ahead of this Dublin derby.

Despite the current league positions, a tight tussle is in the offing especially as Clontarf will be down a few players owing to the Leinster ‘A’ squad’s departure for the Cara Cup.

‘Nure cannot afford a repeat of their October clash with the north Dubliners, who had a first league try from scrum-half Angus Lloyd to make it 24-3 before the hosts scored twice to make it a nine-point deficit.

Lansdowne v Garryowen, Aviva Stadium back pitch

Mike Ruddock after the game Lansdowne coach Mike Ruddock. Source: Ben Whitley/INPHO

It is almost twelve months since Lansdowne hosted Garryowen in a league semi-final, but the Light Blues’ last-four hopes are all but over this season.

Dublin University’s Colours success at UCD has them on 51 points, a tally the Limerick men can only match with bonus point victories at Lansdowne and Trinity.

Even then, a negative scoring differential is very much against Conan Doyle’s charges. Although they will take encouragement from their October home win over Lansdowne, maximum points are required in the capital and the table shows they only have three try-scoring bonuses so far. Trinity have the lowest tally of the top four with seven.

Lansdowne have won all seven home games to date and finish the league phase with two more. Given their average score on the back pitch is 42.5 points, it is hard to see Mike Ruddock’s men losing here. Tom Roche and Tim Murphy are added to the backline, with James Rael, Jack Dwan and Aaron Conneely the changes up front. Willie Earle reverts to number eight.

All-Ireland League, Division 1B (Saturday, 2.30pm unless stated)

Ballymena v Naas, Eaton Park

Johne Murphy Naas player-coach Johne Murphy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ballymena have nothing but pride to play for in their final home game of an unforgiving season, following their thumping 74-15 defeat at St Mary’s which confirmed their relegation. A seven-match losing streak has condemned the Braidmen to Division 2A rugby, returning to a tier they last graced in 2014.

Visitors Naas, who lie fourth overall, need to win as they look to close a five-point gap to the top two, Old Wesley and Ballynahinch. Player-coach Johne Murphy touched down twice in their 28-3 home win over Ballymena back in October, and another bonus point return would do nicely for the ambitious Cobras.

Naas made a quick return trip to Ulster just a couple of weeks on from their excellent 42-21 success at Banbridge. Fionn Higgins weighed in with two tries, making it three in four rounds for the speedy young winger. The combination of that pace out wide with the power of a Paulie Tolofua-led pack should see Murphy’s men keep up their winning momentum.

Buccaneers v Banbridge, Dubarry Park

Greg Jones Greg Jones lines out for Banbridge this weekend. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Banbridge’s first ever trip to Dubarry Park comes with a lot of pressure on both clubs. Buccaneers currently occupy the relegation play-off berth, with Bann sitting just two points above them. Buccs should have a number of their Connacht Eagles representatives back after their involvement in the Stateside Cara Cup competition.

One of them, prop Conor Kenny, misses out through injury, but Darragh Corbett, the scorer of four early-season tries, and Simon Meagher should be back from their spells on the sidelines. The Pirates cannot afford to repeat their missed opportunities from October’s 24-0 away defeat to Banbridge.

Bann head coach Simon McKinstry has reacted to their heavy loss to Naas by making five personnel changes, including the return of forwards Callum Reid and Caleb Montgomery from Ulster ‘A’ duty. Jonny Stewart’s selection at scrum-half sees positional switches for Ian Porter and Josh Cromie, while there are also starts for Ben Carson and Ulster senior squad member Greg Jones.

City of Armagh v Ballynahinch, Palace Grounds

Willie Faloon comes up against his former Ulster head coach tomorrow as City of Armagh entertain Brian McLaughlin’s Ballynahinch in the penultimate Ulster derby of the league phase. Armagh are smarting from a 16-7 reversal at the hands of Malone which has knocked them out of the top four.

These are pivotal weeks for Faloon’s men, who have the Bateman Cup final against Garryowen on Saturday, 20 April, but they will not be looking past ‘Hinch. The visitors should be bolstered by returning Ulster players, while Ross Adair continues to shine from fullback, his hat-trick against Old Belvedere making it five tries in four games.

In a division of inconsistent results, Ballynahinch are the team that have bucked that trend of late with four victories on the bounce. However, they were held try-less by Armagh back in mid-October, the sides playing out a three-all draw during which Richard Reaney landed a late levelling penalty for ‘Hinch.

Old Belvedere v Old Wesley, Anglesea Road

Old Wesley are only 160 minutes away from clinching a much-coveted place in the top flight. Level on 48 points with Ballynahinch, their superior scoring differential (+102 to ‘Hinch’s +42) could yet prove decisive. Their focus is solely on the next two fixtures — two very tough Dublin derbies.

The defences cancelled each other out when Wesley hosted Old Belvedere back in round two, Steve Crosbie matching Rory Stynes’ hat-trick of penalties as the near-neighbours finished at nine points apiece. ‘Belvo still have it all to play for, trailing the top four by just four points but lying four clear of the relegation zone.

Belvedere have won six of their eight home matches so far, with their most recent reversal coming against Naas in January. Wesley’s away form is a big reason why they are where they are now, twelve months on from narrowly avoiding the relegation play-offs. Six wins from eight trips, including an Ulster clean sweep, is a superb return.

St Mary’s College v Malone, Templeville Road

St Mary’s College are another team with a proud home record this season, winning seven out of eight. They host an Ulster club for the second round running and have revenge on their minds after losing 18-10 away to Malone in mid-October. Three points currently separate these sides in the table.

The Cregagh Red Sox travel south after vaulting back up to third place, and they are boosted by four players returning from Cara Cup action. Prop Ross Kane, flanker Joe Dunleavy and backs Stewart Moore and Jack Owens slot back into the starting XV, along with Ulster hooker Adam McBurney and Stuart Dodington in the second row.

A number of young players have stood out for both clubs this season, including Ireland U20 Grand Slam winner Cormac Foley with his hat-trick exploits for Mary’s last time out. But some wily old campaigners continue to roll back the years, the latest of them being former Mary’s captain Gareth Logan (40) who put in a big 80-minute shift in the second row against Ballymena.

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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