Return to league action is welcome distraction

 

Roll on the AIB All-Ireland League. In times of despair, the prospect of a return to domestic fare can offer both comfort and escapism. And, whatever about beating anybody else, at least we can still beat ourselves.

A scattered programme offers plenty of welcome distractions from other more demoralising matters this week, beginning with a return to headquarters for tonight's Lansdowne-St Mary's tie and culminating in the Garryowen-Shannon derby on Sunday.

These are hugely significant games, for all of a sudden the cut-off point for the potentially lucrative top four play-off spots, not to mention the relegation trap door, are coming a little more closely into focus. After this week's series, there are just two more rounds left before the Paris international, and only another couple after that.

With Dolphin in tenth place currently just two points off Young Munster in fourth, the standing of both St Mary's and Lansdowne encapsulate the current uncertainty and attraction which the play-offs have generated.

Successive defeats to Clontarf and Shannon had seen St Mary's precariously drop to fourth from bottom, but back-to-back wins over Cork Constitution and Young Munster have propelled them back up to fifth place. Victory here would leave St Mary's well placed going into key games with Ballymena and Garryowen, before a closing sequence against the current bottom three.

Even though they are in the bottom half, were Lansdowne to repeat their win of last season over St Mary's then they too would be entitled to nurture hopes of reaching the play-offs. Defeat though, would leave them well off the pace. As the St Mary's coach, Steve Hennessy, observed, when considering all of his, "it's a huge game."

St Mary's are effectively back to full strength, if a little rusty in key areas, with Irish scrum-half Conor McGuinness and Leinster flanker Trevor Brennan starting their first full games since the derby defeat to Terenure in early December. McGuinness has been sidelined with a stress fracture of his shin bone and the sorely missed Brennan with a cracked vertebrae. Mark Reilly moves into the second-row while Dennis Hickie, the division's leading try scorer with eight in six games, remains on the left wing with John McWeeney on the right.

As usual St Mary's will endeavour to move the ball to them and on a pitch that should suit their style. "That's our policy, to go out and score five or six tries if we can, and even if it means we come unstuck." Indeed, were the AIL to reward try-scoring along the lines of the Super 12 model, (with an additional point for scoring four or more in a game) then St Mary's would have picked up three bonus points.

Against that, Lansdowne's defence has improved considerably since Kurt McQuilkin's return from early-season injury and then the arrival of new coach Michael Cosgrave. They pick the same team for the third game running.

The champions will be glad of the extra 24 hours before locking horns with Garryowen on Sunday given they are still licking some of the wounds left by the crunching encounter with Ballymena. Eddie Halvey, sidelined from last weekend's A match, hasn't trained since playing through the pain barrier with an ankle injury, and nor have Noel Healy or John Hayes.

Similarly, Garryowen coach Philip Danaher is being typically coy about the Garryowen line-up until later in the week although they have no injury concerns and should field the same side which accounted for Clontarf last time out.

Indeed, most clubs are becoming decidedly coy about their selections these days. Blackrock are amongst the exceptions, and have preferred Declan Kavanagh to Paul Flavin (a substitution made at half-time during their win over Terenure) with Nicky Assaf again on the bench and a vacancy at full-back pending Tom Keating's availability.

Young Munster expect to have influential number eight Declan Edwards back for the visit of Terenure on Saturday since suffering a shoulder injury in the game against Dolphin on December 13th. He came through a seconds' game last weekend. They also await a fitness report on winger James Carey, who sustained a broken nose against Terenure, but are less confident of Peter Clohessy making a return given the cast on his broken thumb only comes off on Friday. Terenure have delayed selection.

Ballymena hope to have a full-strength side for the third game running and the sixth time this season, when entertaining Cork Con, although this is partly dependant on James Topping overcoming the ankle injury which ruled him out of the `A' game. Constitution hope to have Ultan O'Callaghan back in their equation.

Old Crescent have confirmed that the former Young Munster coach Tony Grant, who had been filling in for Jed O'Dwyer while the latter was on holidays, will now work in tandem with O'Dwyer as co-coach. Dolphin expect to have the Mahony centres, Conor and Cian, back in harness for the visit of Clontarf, who await fitness checks on Nicky Barry, Peter McQuillen, Alan Dignam and Pat Ward.

The big game of the day in Division Two is undoubtedly at Holmpatrick, where something has to give, either Skerries' unbeaten home record of three seasons or Galwegians' 100 per cent record this season. The division pacesetters expect to be back at full strength, after Junior Charlie missed the seven try rout of Instonians a fortnight ago with a knee injury. Skerries have deferred selection although they hope to be strengthened by the return of long-term absentees centre Gareth Earley and Leinster flanker David O'Sullivan.

Buccaneeers await fitness checks on the injured duo of fullback Tom Stuart-Trainor and out-half Eamonn Molloy. Bective are similarly concerned over hooker and captain John Carvill, flanker Stephen Montgomery and scrum-half Des Jackson.

In-form City of Derry are at full-strength for the trip to Wanderers, with Ian Orr inching his way back to the bench or even the starting XV. UCC will be without left-winger Daragh Holt, who is playing for the Irish under-19s against their Italian counterparts at Suttonians on Saturday.

The Greystones and Ireland loose-head prop Reggie Corrigan, who won his third cap against Scotland last Saturday, has been awarded a Category Two, £35,000 per year contract. The 27-year-old had been surprisingly overlooked for a contract prior to the Italian game, despite having given up his job to concentrate on rugby, a decision that saw him secure a regular place on the Leinster team and in the Irish squad.