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Big guns in for Ulster derby

By Michael Sadlier

The top two divisions return for their first taste of New Year action today with the pick of the crop being the Ulster derby between Ballymena and Belfast Harlequins at Eaton Park.

And added to what is already sure to be hotly contested meeting is the fact that both sides will be chasing the win, with contrasting fortunes being very much to the fore, as they currently find themselves at opposite ends of the table.

The Braidmen - in second -will want to try and narrow the gap further between themselves and leaders Galwegians, which is currently down to five points after the Connacht side slipped up in the last round of games, while for Quins this is all about trying to extricate themselves from the table's basement where they trail Shannon and Malone by two points.

Ballymena coach Andy Graham is able to deploy a strong hand for this derby meeting and has Dave Shanahan, Dave Ryan and Ricky and John Andrew all on board while Michael Lagan is back after being in camp with Ireland U20s.

Graham is also eager to make up for last weekend's rather unexpected draw at Corinthians, but knows that Quins are coming to Eaton Park fighting for their lives.

"It's a big derby and if you look at the league table it should be an easy win for us but it will be anything but and it is going to be a tough game," said Graham.

Quins have Michael Heaney, Neil McComb, Rory Scholes and Frank Taggart all released again which is a considerable boost as all contributed to beating Bohemians last time out.

"Win and we're right back in the thick of it but every game from here on in is vitally important as we look to build on what was achieved against Bohemians."

Quins narrowly lost to the Braidmen in the Ulster League back in September but now, in the AIL table, there is a huge gap of eight places and 20 points separating the sides.

Malone host Corinthians at Gibson Park firm in the knowledge that they need to get away from their current situation which sees them eighth.

And in Division 1A, Ballynahinch are at UCD and head to Dublin missing influential back-rower Michael Graham, who is injured, with David McGuigan coming in to join forces with Charlie Butterworth and Paul Pritchard.

"We know tactically what we need to do," said coach Derek Suffern, "and we'll be in a good place if we get it right but we know we'll have to be right on the money."

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