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Blackrock aiming to preserve unbeaten record as Top Four heats up in Women's AIL

A preview of the weekend’s games in AIL.

 ENERGIA WOMEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE – TOP FOUR

Kick-offs 5pm unless stated 

RAILWAY UNION (3rd) v OLD BELVEDERE (4th), Park Avenue

Having tasted defeat last week for the first time this season, Railway Union will be out to right the wrongs of that late 16-13 loss to Top Four leaders Blackrock College.

There are some notable changes up front with Grainne O’Loughlin, Deirdre Roberts and Aoife McDermott all added to the tight five. McDermott pairs up with Keelin Brady at lock, while Lindsay Peat dons the number 6 jersey.

Emer O’Mahony’s inclusion on the left wing is the only change to Railway’s back-line, which is again lead by out-half Nikki Caughey who leads the league’s scoring charts with 99 points to date.

Old Belvedere, who have started the New Year with back-to-back defeats, bring in dual international Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird on their bench for this evening’s Dublin 4 derby.

Kathryn Dane adds her Ireland experience at scrum half after missing the UL Bohemians game, while there are also starts for Katelyn Faust, Melissa Hayden and Lesley Ring.

fiona-tuite-is-tackled-by-maggie-boylan-and-michelle-claffey Michelle Claffey of Blackrock makes a tackle. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

UL BOHEMIANS (2nd) v BLACKROCK COLLEGE (1st), UL Arena

Blackrock, the only unbeaten team left in the Top Four, head to Limerick to take on a UL Bohemians side that pipped them 17-16 during the first half of the season.

Buoyed by claiming the scalp of the defending champions last Saturday, Blackrock captain Michelle Claffey said: “We played for the full 80 minutes last week, and we’re looking forward to build on that.

“We are incredibly lucky to have a full squad available to us and our bench was our difference. Jackie Shiels, Aoife Wafer and Ali Coleman had excellent contributions, and delighted to have Dorothy Wall feature.

“We are expecting the usual tough battle with UL down in Limerick. They have an incredibly experienced team, with internationals across all parts of the field.

“Bohs have been standard bearers for years so we are looking for another improvement in performance. A player to watch out for this weekend is Natasja Behan, at full-back.”

Wafer is rewarded for her cameo with a start in the ‘Rock back row, with Ireland starlet Wall switching to the second row where she will pack down with fellow former Ireland U-18 Sevens international, Eimear Corri.

UL’s director of Women’s rugby, Niamh Kavanagh, has been pleased with their recent performances, particularly from a back-line which has benefitted from the returning Enya Breen and Eimear Considine.

Breen touched down twice last week against Belvedere, and Kavanagh acknowledged: “The centre partnership with Rachel Allen and Enya is lovely to watch from the sideline, and add in Nicole Cronin at 10 – she’s been brilliant there all season.

“We’re so lucky to have three players that can be play-makers or hard ball carriers when we need them to be.

“In the forwards, hooker Kate Sheehan is standing out for not just her amazing throwing ability, but also for her hard work around the pitch. Lily Brady has really stood up in the back row over the last two weeks.”

Ahead of today’s encounter, which will be live-streamed on YouTube, Kavanagh added: “If it is anything like when we played each other at Stradbrook back in November, it will be an unbelievable display of rugby.

“Both sides really enjoyed that game and the close finish made for very exciting rugby. The race to make the Top Four final has really made teams step up to the next level, there’s been some outstanding games.”

ENERGIA WOMEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE – CONFERENCE

BALLINCOLLIG (3rd) v COOKE (6th), Tanner Park, 2pm

Ballincollig are back on home soil after two hard-fought victories on the road. Head coach Fiona Hayes is looking for improvements in game management and forward play when Cooke come calling.

“Cooke have an excellent pack and they have also developed an exciting back-line attack over the last couple of years,” said Hayes, who highlighted Heather Kennedy, Denise Redmond and Kira Fitzgerald for their impact against Wicklow.

“We want to manage the game better this week as a team, but also front up in the pack. When we played Cooke away, we felt it was an area we needed to improve, especially our scrum.

“Hopefully this week will show improvements from before Christmas. The girls are absolutely loving the Conference. Every game brings a new buzz and we’re gaining momentum and growing as a team.”

Goal-kicking forward Redmond reverts to number 8 for the Cork side, with Hayes swapping in Eimear Perryman and Clare and Gillian Coombes from the bench, as the three personnel changes to the pack.

Meanwhile, Cooke’s Beth Cregan admitted they had ‘too many errors’ which Galwegians capitalised on last Saturday. Ashleigh Orchard (formerly Baxter) is one of their returning players who has given them a boost.

“Our team for this week has a bit of a rejig in the forwards, Sorcha Mac Laimhin moving to front row, Naomi McCord coming into second row, and Ashleigh onto the flank,” explained Cregan.

“The Conference has been good for us to have been able to focus on the competitiveness of the fixtures and work on the aspects of our game that need a bit more detail for us to really push on next season.

“We’re just really trying to focus on improvements in our game and ensure less errors which will hopefully transfer into wins and points on the table.”

 MALONE (5th) v WICKLOW (4th), Gibson Park

Captain Peita McAlister is restored to out-half for Malone after a couple of run-outs in the back row. Ella Durkan and Fern Wilson are the two other changes to the Cregagh Red Sox’s back-line.

It is five personnel changes in all, as Rebecca Greenaway packs down in the second row and the loose forwards are bolstered by the presence of Emma Taylor and Chloe McIlwaine, whose previous coach at Loughborough University was England captain Sarah Hunter.

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Wicklow are without Ella Roberts this weekend and co-captain Amy O’Neill remains on the injury list, but head coach Jason Moreton is confident that the travelling party will put it up to the Belfast side.

“We’re looking forward to the game, we’ve watched the last two matches Malone have played. They look well organised and have some very good ball carriers,” he said.

“It was a close game at home (Wicklow won 12-7 in October) and we need to step up another 10% from last week if we are going to come away with the win.

“If we can reduce the turnovers and errors, it should be a close match. The two losses have put us in a position of ‘must-wins’ for these next two games in Belfast to give us any chance of a top two finish.”

SUTTONIANS (1st) v GALWEGIANS (2nd), JJ McDowell Memorial Grounds

nicole-carroll Absent: Nicole Carroll. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Something will have to give at the JJ McDowell Memorial Grounds where Suttonians and Galwegians put their unbeaten Conference records on the line. Out-half Nicole Carroll is away and a notable absentee for Sutts.

However, Julia Bauer, Julia O’Connor and Grainne Tummon are all back from long-term injuries. Suttonians head coach Stephen Costelloe is predicting ‘a belter of a game’.

“Galwegians are a strong side and have grown into the season as we have,” he said. “We’re expecting a tough battle up front and they can mix it up in the back-line, so we’ll have to get off the line to disrupt them.

“We had a lot of positives from the game against Malone, a big one for us was when we had the ball we always looked a threat and were able to find the pockets of space and exploit it.

“I think Catherine Martin showed a new dimension to her game when she had ball in hand looking to get into areas to release others and then working hard in support.

“Mary Healy had a massive impact off the bench with her pace and power, scoring three tries. Lauren Farrell McCabe conducted the team around the park and was relentless in her pursuit to lead from the front.”

Connacht centre Megan Walsh makes her first start of 2022 for Galwegians, who also bring in fit-again flanker Grace Browne Moran along with promoting forwards Celia Killilea and Ann Marie Herward from the bench.

Olivia Haverty continues at scrum half, following a ‘super debut’ according to ‘Wegians coach Craig Hansberry. “We’ve had huge competition for places in the last few weeks and the quality on the bench speaks to that,” he said.

“We have Elizabeth McNicholas, Faith Oviawe and Nicole Fowley all looking to make an impact when they come on. The fixture (against Suttonians) was a close one – it could have gone either way – and we don’t expect this one to be any different.

“The team has been building and improving steadily week on week and we couldn’t be happier with how our season has gone to far.

“The Conference has been brilliant for us. It has brought a new lease of life to the squad now that we have a great chance of winning silverware before the end of the season.”

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