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Key clashes at the top and bottom as AIL season enters final weekend

Here is what on the line in Division 1A this weekend.

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

Dublin University v Garryowen, College Park

Tony Smeeth Dublin University coach Tony Smeeth. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

DUBLIN UNIVERSITY ARE hoping their dream-like season did not peak with last week’s Colours win at Belfield, a result which confirmed their first ever Division 1A semi-final.

Their resources are stretched tomorrow with captain Colm Hogan sidelined, some key men away with Leinster ‘A’, and Trinity U20s in a Fraser McMullen Cup semi-final.

This is a dead rubber as Garryowen cannot catch the students, and next Saturday’s Bateman Cup final against City of Armagh is now their big focus. 

Injuries have hampered them, particularly in the front row, but Andy Keating and Sean Rennison are back to bolster the pack and backs Tommy O’Hora and Ben Swindlehurst complete the four changes from last week.

Lansdowne are the only away team to triumph at College Park in the league this season, and Trinity will be doing their best to sign off at home with just that one blemish.

They are boosted by Michael Silvester’s return at fullback, while Cian Crotty, Donal Liddy, James Fennelly, Joe Horan and Bart Vermeulen are also handed starts.

Lansdowne v Clontarf, Aviva Stadium back pitch

A view of a Lansdowne FC ball on the pitch The Aviva Stadium back pitch hosts Saturday's game. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Centre Conor Murphy, scrum-half James Kenny and number eight Willie Fay have been promoted from the bench to start Lansdowne’s final home game of the regular season.

They reclaimed second spot last week and aim to stay ahead of Clontarf in this head-to-head clash for a home semi-final.

‘Tarf’s late defeat to Terenure College have left them three points behind Lansdowne entering the final round. They lost 38-8 on their most recent visit to the Aviva Stadium’s back pitch, but did beat Mike Ruddock’s men 16-3 at Castle Avenue in October when centre Matt D’Arcy scored the first of his eight tries so far this season.

These are two of the best tight fives on the club scene, Lansdowne’s front row showing their scoring threat with Martin Mulhall and former captain Ian Prendiville both touching down against Garryowen, while hooker Paddy Finlay is edging closer to his rampaging best just in time for Clontarf’s tilt at a third league title.

Shannon v Cork Constitution, Thomond Park back pitch

Jake Flannery Ireland U20 international Jake Flannery plays for Shannon this weekend. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Can Shannon pull off a last-day escape or will last year’s Division 1B champions slide back to the second tier? Tom Hayes’ young side have fallen four points adrift at the bottom and will likely need the full five against table toppers Cork Constitution in order to avoid automatic relegation.

The second half of the season has been very unforgiving on Shannon who have won only seven points since Christmas. They will face a Cork Con team missing provincial call-ups Shane Daly, Ross O’Neill, Sean French and Alex McHenry, the latter scoring two tries in his last two outings for the Leesiders.

This is the first time Shannon have hosted Con in the league in six years, back when current U20 Grand Slam winners Jake Flannery and Craig Casey were both just 13. They could really do with one or both of the Ireland U20 pair tomorrow as they try to find a spark that has been missing from their attack of late.

Terenure College v Young Munster, Lakelands Park

Sam Coghlan Murray is tackled by Rob Jermyn Sam Coghlan Murray has been in good try-saving form. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

The first of two showdowns between relegation-threatened clubs in the top-flight tomorrow. Home advantage could prove vital for Terenure as they target a fifth win in six matches and hope it is enough to finish outside of the bottom two. If their season ends here, this is James Blaney’s final match after seven years as ‘Nure’s head coach.

James Thornton landed a priceless late penalty against Clontarf last Saturday, while former Leinster winger Sam Coghlan Murray has now bagged three tries in two games.

Notably, four of Young Munster’s five tries against Shannon were scored by forwards and they will be hoping for more of the same at Lakelands.

That 33-7 derby success was a huge result for the Cookies, with head coach Gearoid Prendergast saying: “Games like this you’ve got to do the basics right, get your fundamentals right and that was the message all week. I felt we did that and in fairness to the forwards, they gave us an unbelievable platform to play from.”

UCC v UCD, the Mardyke

Nick McCarthy Nick McCarthy in action for UCD. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

UCC are in the more precarious position of these two College sides, sitting level with second-from-bottom Terenure on 31 points. UCD are three points better off but make the trip to Cork on the back of four successive losses, including their disappointing 18-12 Colours defeat at home to Trinity.

Looking to avenge October’s 39-28 reversal at the hands of UCD, UCC boss Brian Walsh has made three changes to the side that went down 37-19 to Cork Con. He brings in Adam O’Connor on the left wing and restores captain Daire Feeney and Cian Fitzgerald to a back row which is anchored by Ireland U20 international John Hodnett.

Hooker Bobby Sheehan is the only personnel change made by UCD who will again have Leinster’s Nick McCarthy starting at scrum-half. Centre Paul Kiernan, who previously captained UCC, will certainly be a marked man on his return to the familiar surroundings of the Mardyke. 

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

Ballynahinch v St Mary’s College, Ballymacarn Park

It is a big day for Ballynahinch as they look to turn their new-found three-point lead into automatic promotion and Division 1B silverware. Ulster have not had a Division 1A club since ‘Hinch were relegated in 2016 and, with five wins on the bounce, Brian McLaughlin’s men are almost there.

St. Mary’s would love to spoil the party at Ballymacarn Park, having strung together four victories in the last six rounds. In order to reach the promotion play-offs, they need a win tomorrow and for other results to go their way. They came through an 11-try humdinger against Malone, with winger Hugo Conway grabbing his sixth try of the season.

‘Hinch’s Ross Adair and Rhys O’Donnell are one ahead of him, the former scoring five tries in as many games. Ulster’s David Busby made a welcome return from long-term injury last week and this looks like a clash he could flourish in, as ‘Hinch and Mary’s usually produce a high-scoring encounter whenever they meet.

Banbridge v Old Belvedere, Rifle Park

A glance at the Division 1B table shows that eight clubs could still finish in the promotion play-off places, including Banbridge and Old Belvedere. A hectic final round awaits with Bann boss Simon McKinstry sticking with the winning formula from last Saturday’s hard-earned 24-20 victory at Buccaneers.

His unchanged starting XV includes Ulster’s Jonny Stewart at scrum-half, Caleb Montgomery and Greg Jones in the back row, and Ireland Under-20 prop Callum Reid. Having secured their divisional status, Bann director of rugby Andy Duke said: “We’ve nothing to lose now. There’s an admittedly outside chance of the play-offs, but the lads will feel free to throw the ball about and go for the tries.”

Belvedere showed what they can do when knocking Old Wesley off the summit – 30-24. Kiwi lock Valentine Tauamiti and Karl Miller come into the pack, the latter joining a rejigged back row that is missing Leinster ‘A’ call-up Gerard Hill. Centre Ben Carty and winger David Butler are the two changes behind the scrum.

Malone v Ballymena, Gibson Park

Relegated Ballymena bow out from Division 1B with a final Ulster derby, visiting a Malone outfit that could prolong head coach Paddy Armstrong’s final season as they look to advance to the play-offs. Malone’s backs coach Josh Pentland starts at inside centre, with Ben Halliday and Dave Cave added to the front row.

Rodger McBurney, who started last Saturday at full-back against Naas, and James Taggart are ruled out for the Braidmen this week. The club’s ongoing struggles with injuries have even drawn 40-year-old veteran lock Ian Caldwell from the fourths team to play for Andy Graham’s senior side. They will be relying on Ulster’s Marcus Rea and Bruce Houston tomorrow, and possibly Clive Ross if released.

Hoping for brighter days ahead at Eaton Park, Ballymena head coach Graham said: “It’s about regrouping and recruiting now, but also building on what we have, the players we have. We’ve a young squad and a lot of guys need time to develop and stuff, so we’ll work hard during the summer and hopefully build for the future.”

Naas v Buccaneers, Forenaughts

Buccaneers’ six losing bonus points show they were not far off winning a few more games and joining the teams above them in the promotion play-off mix. Instead, last week’s 24-20 loss to Banbridge leaves them battling relegation — they will host a play-off semi-final next Saturday, with Queen’s University the likely opponents.

Johne Murphy’s Naas are seeking their fourth victory on the trot, with a five-point return tomorrow giving them their best shot at pipping Ballynahinch and Old Wesley to the title. Versatile back Peter Osborne (156 points) is the leading scorer across the top two divisions, while centre/winger Andy Ellis is now in double figures for tries after two in the last two rounds.

Captain Shane Layden continues to carry the fight for Buccs, taking his try haul to six against Bann, while forwards Martin Staunton and Evan Galvin emerged with a good deal of credit from their performances last time out. Whether it is Richard Fahy or Osborne at number 9, it should be a cracking contest with Buccs’ Ireland Under-20 scrum half Colm Reilly.

Old Wesley v City of Armagh, Donnybrook

Failing to finish their opportunities is what has been letting City of Armagh down. Still, having come up via the play-offs last year, this has been a very good season of consolidation for Willie Faloon’s squad who could yet end in the top-four and also have next week’s Bateman Cup final to build towards.

For their final round trip to Donnybrook, winger Ryan Purvis and out-half Harry Boyd get the nod along with front rowers Daryl Morton, Jonny Morton and Paul Mullen, as well as blindside flanker Nigel Simpson. Old Wesley were 22-17 winners when the teams met in the opening round in October.

Wesley have played some of their best rugby this year against Ulster opposition, and will be fired up to bounce back strongly from losing at Old Belvedere. They will not want that loss to define their season, and even if ‘Hinch remain top, Morgan Lennon’s charges will need some momentum to take into the play-offs. As things stand, they would be at home to Naas next Saturday. 

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Bernard Jackman to discuss Izzy Folau’s impending sacking by Australia and all the week’s news on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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