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Relegation dogfight and play-off race take centre stage on a big weekend of AIL rugby

We’re reaching the business end of the season.

Ulster Bank League, Division 1A

2.30pm kick off unless stated 

Buccaneers (10th) v Garryowen (4th), Dubarry Park

Garryowen players celebrate the last try of the match Garryowen travel to Athlone on Saturday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE BATTLE TO automatic relegation is now a straight shootout between Buccaneers and St. Mary’s College, with Buccs needing a lifeline at home to Garryowen tomorrow afternoon or else they are doomed to Division 1B.

Entering the penultimate round, the Pirates have seven points to make up on Mary’s, and they will have it all to do against a visiting Light Blues side that is on course for the semi-finals and a shot at the title.

Buccs need to be at their disciplined best or Garryowen captain Neil Cronin will punish them from the tee, while Munster Academy member Liam Coombes – with eight league tries to his name – has to be kept quiet out wide.

Cork Constitution (3rd) v Terenure College (2nd), Temple Hill

Sam Coughlan Murray celebrates his try with teammates Terenure will be looking to strengthen their grip on a home semi-final berth. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Second-placed Terenure, who thrashed neighbours St. Mary’s 35-5 last time out, take a two-point lead with them down to Cork. Intriguingly, Constitution are their closest challengers for a home semi-final berth.

February and March produced four wins on the trot for ‘Nure, with sniping winger Jake Swaine taking his try tally to seven and a number of their players also gaining Ireland Club international honours.

These clubs played out a hugely entertaining contest back in September when the Dubliners won 39-35 at home. However, Cork Con, who had have two tries each from Brian Hayes and Rob Jermyn in the last two rounds, look primed to avenge that result tomorrow.

St Mary’s College (9th) v Clontarf (5th), Templeville Road

Sam Cronin Clontarf's Sam Cronin. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Dublin University’s Colours win over UCD last night condemned St. Mary’s to a bottom-two finish, leaving Peter Burke’s young side with a a very challenging few weeks ahead of them.

With Caelan Doris back training with Leinster, the Ireland Under-20 starlet’s return would offer a huge boost to Mary’s, but they can expect something of a backlash from Clontarf who lost a nine-try thriller to Garryowen a fortnight ago.

That result saw ‘Tarf fall out of the top four, and even two closing bonus point wins may not be enough for them to reach the semi-finals for a fourth successive year. Their 22-year-old full-back Jack Power, a member of the Munster Academy, is hitting form with three tries in his last two outings.

Young Munster (6th) v Lansdowne (1st), Tom Clifford Park

Charlie Butterworth celebrates at the final whistle Lansdowne are the current pacesetters. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It looks like Young Munster’s bid for a play-off place may fall just short, despite a terrific run of six wins out of seven for the Cookies since early December. They sit three points outside the top-four with two rounds remaining.

Table toppers Lansdowne hit the road on the back of a thumping 50-point victory over Trinity. They remain the most potent attackers and most miserly defenders in the top flight, with ever-influential out-half Scott Deasy, who is still only 29, amassing 184 points so far.

It is always a fascinating tussle between these sides, particularly up front where the respective Ger Slattery and Ian Prendiville-led packs scrap for supremacy. Lansdowne had 20 points to spare when they met in September but, significantly, they have lost on their last six visits to Greenfields, stretching back to November 2011.

Ulster Bank League, Division 1B

2.30pm kick off unless stated 

Dolphin (10th) v Ballymena (8th), Musgrave Park

Adam McBurney Adam McBurney could return for Ballymena. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dolphin’s rebuilding plans begin this weekend, after their brave fight against relegation ended in defeat to Shannon last Saturday. Completing a season’s double over Ballymena would be the ideal riposte from Chris Rowe’s charges.

The Corkmen, who won 10-6 away to the Braidmen in round 2, have at least carried more of a scoring threat in their recent outings. Scrum half Daryl Foley has impressed with three tries in as many games.

31-7 winners over UL Bohemians a fortnight ago, Ballymena still have work to do to avoid finishing in the bottom two. That result certainly gave them a timely lift. Adam McBurney and Marcus Rea are set to return from Ulster ‘A’ duty if they can shake off knocks, with flanker Clive Ross taking on the captaincy role.

Recent League Meetings – Saturday, March 11, 2017: Dolphin 18 Ballymena 16, Irish Independent Park; Saturday, September 23, 2017: Ballymena 6 Dolphin 10, Eaton Park

Old Belvedere (5th) v Shannon (2nd), Anglesea Road

Shane McDonald’s sixth try of the campaign saw Old Belvedere fight back for a losing bonus point against UCC, but they are in limbo-land now – nine points outside the top-four and 11 clear of the bottom two.

Mathematically they can still catch the fourth-placed Cork students and they will be staying positive, as will Shannon who are still right in the hunt for the Division 1B title and automatic promotion, breathing down Ballynahinch’s neck.

After enduring a three-match winless streak, Shannon have responded with victories over Old Wesley and Dolphin, aided by the efforts of former Ireland U20 internationals Conor Fitzgerald and Kelvin Brown who combined for 31 points in those two games.

Old Wesley (7th) v Ballynahinch (1st), Donnybrook

Peter Nelson Peter Nelson will be lining out for 1B leaders Ballynahinch. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The bonus-point win over Dolphin last time out has front-runners Ballynahinch still with their destiny in their own hands. They feel the all-weather Donnybrook surface will suit their game tomorrow, particularly if Conor Kelly (eight tries) continues to sniff out scores.

Hooker Zack McCall’s involvement against Old Wesley is dependent on a late fitness test, but Aaron Cairns, Peter Nelson, Peter Browne and Jack Regan have been released for game-time with ‘Hinch, and back rower Conall Boomer is back from injury.

It has been a season of near misses for Wesley, whose haul of seven losing bonus points tells its own tale. With two teams still nipping at their heels, Morgan Lennon’s men need a big performance and win here to steer them to Division 1B safety.

UL Bohemians (9th) v Naas (6th), University of Limerick 4G pitch

Mathematically, four clubs could still finish second-from-bottom and have to go through the minefield of the relegation/promotion play-offs. UL Bohemians are currently the worst placed of the quartet, trailing eighth-placed Ballymena by two points.

Bohs’ prospect looked much brighter after they strung together wins over Old Belvedere and local rivals Shannon in February. Losing to Ballynahinch and the Braidmen last month dented confidence, but the Red Robins are a resilient bunch and will fight to the bitter end.

Visitors Naas have scored 30-plus points in their last two matches, including a 36-31 success at UCC last Saturday, and player-coach Johne Murphy has unsurprisingly kept faith with that winning side. The only change sees current Ireland Under-20 prop Jordan Duggan come in at loosehead.

UCC (4th) v Banbridge (3rd), the Mardyke, 3pm

Third-placed Banbridge are hoping to make it six league games without defeat and take the three-way title race to the final weekend. Their only change for the Cork trip sees Eric O’Sullivan return from injury in the front row, taking on from Ulster debutant Tom O’Toole.

UCC picked up two bonus points against Naas to take a step closer to a promotion play-off spot. Captain and former Ireland U20 international Paul Kiernan is scoring for fun from midfield, running in six tries in the last four rounds.

He will come up against Bann’s own scoring star, 10-try centre Andrew Morrison, tomorrow afternoon, and another high-scoring contest could be in the offing. When the sides played each other at Rifle Park back in September, a superb three-try comeback from UCC earned them a share of the spoils in a 31-all draw.

Division 2A:

  • Cashel v Blackrock College, Spafield
  • City of Armagh v Galwegians, Palace Grounds
  • Corinthians v Greystones, Corinthian Park
  • Highfield v Malone, Woodleigh Park
  • Nenagh Ormond v Queen’s University, New Ormond Park

Division 2B:

  • Belfast Harlequins v City of Derry, Deramore Park
  • Dungannon v Sunday’s Well, Stevenson Park
  • MU Barnhall v Old Crescent, Parsonstown
  • Rainey Old Boys v Navan, Hatrick Park
  • Wanderers v Skerries, Merrion Road

Division 2C:

  • Bangor v Seapoint, Upritchard Park
  • Bruff v Bective Rangers, Kilballyowen ParkMalahide v Sligo, Estuary Road
  • Midleton v Omagh, Towns Park
  • Thomond v Tullamore, Liam Fitzgerald Park

All-Ireland provincial league championship — round robin qualifiers:

  • Ashbourne v Instonians, Milltown House
  • Ballina v Bandon, Heffernan Park

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