Dave Mervyn previews this weekend's AIL Division 1B fixtures.
BALLYNAHINCH (6th) v MALONE (2nd), Ballymacarn Park
All-Ireland League Season's Form: Ballynahinch: LDWWLWWL; Malone: WWLWWWLL
All-Ireland League Top Scorers - Ballynahinch: Points: Hilton Gibbons 28; Tries: Rhys O'Donnell 5; Malone: Points: Rory Campbell 49; Tries: Ben McCaughey 3
Ballynahinch are back on home soil after a Peter Nelson-inspired win at Old Wesley and a frustrating outing against bottom side Ballymena last Saturday. They finished eight points behind their Ulster rivals, having been second best at the breakdown.
That will undoubtedly be a key area in tomorrow's derby clash with Malone, who sit four places and only three points better off than 'Hinch. The Cregagh Red Sox are hoping to avoid a December whitewash after defeats to Banbridge and Wesley.
Wesley kept Malone try-less last weekend and head coach Paddy Armstrong has reacted by making four personnel changes. Centre Neil Alcorn and forwards Ross Kane, Matthew Dalton and Dave Cave all come in, with Michael Shiels switching from the second row to blindside flanker.
Recent League Meetings - Saturday, January 5, 2013: Malone 15 Ballynahinch 15, Gibson Park; Friday, March 15, 2013: Ballynahinch 58 Malone 3, Ballymacarn Park
BANBRIDGE (5th) v CITY OF ARMAGH (4th), Rifle Park
All-Ireland League Season's Form: Banbridge: LWWWLLWL; City of Armagh: LDWLWWLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers - Banbridge: Points: Adam Doherty 56; Tries: Peter Cromie 6; City of Armagh: Points: Cormac Fox 42; Tries: Andrew Smyth 4
The second of the Ulster derbies in Division 1B brings together Banbridge and City of Armagh, who are split by just a single point in the table. Bann won the sides' Ulster Premiership tie in September, prevailing 22-18 thanks to late tries from Andrew Morrison and Niall Armstrong.
Armstrong comes in at out-half as one of five changes to the Banbridge team that lost 28-7 to St. Mary's. Ulster's James Hume, Robert Lyttle and Alex Thompson are all set to start along with promising flanker David McCann who returns from Ireland Under-19 duty.
Fit-again centre and captain Chris Colvin is Armagh's lone change from their 16-11 success against Naas. Bann head coach Simon McKinstry noted: "Armagh will be as physical a team as we've played all season. If we don't up our game defensively then we'll come out on the wrong side, there's no doubt. We'll have to be at our best to beat them."
Recent League Meetings - N/A
BUCCANEERS (9th) v BALLYMENA (10th), Dubarry Park
All-Ireland League Season's Form: Buccaneers: LLWLLLWL; Ballymena: LLWLLLWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers - Buccaneers: Points: Luke Carty 66; Tries: Darragh Corbett 4; Ballymena: Points: Tim Small 64; Tries: Connor Smyth 4
Buccaneers and Ballymena find themselves in the bottom two approaching the halfway stage of the season. However, the division is so congested at the moment that only seven points separates these two clubs from the top four.
The Braidmen arrive in Athlone with plenty of confidence after successive home wins over Old Belvedere and Ballynahinch, the latter including an excellent Try of the Month contender from scrum half Michael Stronge. But they have struggled on the road so far.
Both sides will need to watch their discipline with two of the division's top-scoring out-halves, Luke Carty and Tim Small, both very capable match winners. Buccs had to cope with seven changes against Old Belvedere, and a more settled line-up, under captain Shane Layden, could make the difference tomorrow.
Recent League Meetings - Saturday, December 3, 2016: Ballymena 13 Buccaneers 18, Eaton Park; Saturday, January 28, 2017: Buccaneers 13 Ballymena 13, Dubarry Park
NAAS (3rd) v OLD BELVEDERE (8th), Forenaughts
All-Ireland League Season's Form: Naas: WWLWWLLL; Old Belvedere: WDLLWLLW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers - Naas: Points: Peter Osborne 74; Tries: Andy Ellis 6; Old Belvedere: Points: Steve Crosbie 59; Tries: Jack Keating 5
Top scorer Peter Osborne is the latest Naas back to be sidelined through injury. Fionn Carr moves to full-back to cover Osborne's absence tomorrow, with Rory Cleary coming in on the right wing as the only personnel change from their five-point reversal in Armagh.
Leinster-capped prop Adam Coyle is fit to take his place on the bench as the Cobras aim to end their three-match losing run. They were 27-13 winners when they hosted Old Belvedere last January, a game in which their pacy backs scored four tries.
'Belvo have picked up three points away from home so far, including a draw with local rivals Old Wesley. They were tenacious in defence during last Saturday's nail-biting 11-10 win over Buccs, while winger Jack Keating's mazy runs were a regular threat to the visitors' rearguard.
Recent League Meetings - Saturday, November 25, 2017: Old Belvedere 28 Naas 10, Anglesea Road; Friday, January 26, 2018: Naas 27 Old Belvedere 13, Forenaughts
OLD WESLEY (7th) v ST. MARY'S COLLEGE (1st), Energia Park, Donnybrook
All-Ireland League Season's Form: Old Wesley: WDLWLWLW; St. Mary's College: WLLWLWWW
All-Ireland League Top Scorers - Old Wesley: Points: Rory Stynes 67; Tries: Paul Harte, Tom Kiersey 3 each; St. Mary's College: Points: Conor Dean 50; Tries: Myles Carey 3
New leaders St. Mary's are set to face Dublin rivals Old Wesley without their captain Marcus O'Driscoll. He is missing from the provisional line-up, Craig Kennedy covering across to fill the inside centre berth and Ruairi Shields coming in on the left wing.
There are three alterations in the pack where hooker Richie Halpin, lock Hugo Diepman and number 8 Mark Fallon are selected. Boosted by their terrific win at Malone last Saturday, Wesley are meeting Mary's in the league for the first time in three seasons.
The Donnybrook outfit are one of the lowest scoring sides currently, but when they do score well they generally win. Full-back Rory Stynes is averaging 12 points per game across the recent rounds, and his goal-kicking duel with Conor Dean tomorrow could decide the outcome.
Recent League Meetings - Saturday, November 28, 2015: St. Mary's College 19 Old Wesley 9, Templeville Road; Saturday, January 9, 2016: Old Wesley 14 St. Mary's College 20, Donnybrook