Young guns can fire for Instonians to the senior grade
The All-Ireland League round-robin commences this weekend with Instonians aiming for a return to senior rugby at the first time of asking.
The south Belfast side have swept aside most challenges before them in Ulster this season, winning both Kukri Qualifying One and the Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup.
Indeed, they have been beaten just three times throughout the campaign, losing to Queen's in the McCrea Cup and twice in the league, although one of those was to Clogher Valley last weekend after the title had already been secured.
Despite their impressive season, however, the odds are stacked against Wilbur Leacock's men as, with league restructuring meaning there is only one place up for grabs in the newly-formed AIL 2C next year, even if they top the round-robin series they would still need to negotiate an away play-off game against the third from bottom side in AIL 2B, likely to be one of DLSP, Boyne or Richmond.
If the Shaw's Bridge side are to force their way into that play-off, then a result against an impressive Dundalk outfit will be imperative this Saturday.
Viewed as a pivotal clash between the two strongest sides in the running, Instonians President Michael Hunter is expecting a tough contest.
He said: "We've been told all year that Dundalk are the favourites so if we're going to beat them then we'll certainly need to be at our very best.
"We're a young side, and we're two or three years ahead of where we expected to be.
"When we got relegated last year, we put our faith in young players and said we'd see how they develop. We didn't expect to be going for promotion again this quickly."
While home advantage will no doubt be a boon to the Ulster representatives, the Leinster champions' last visit to the province could hardly have gone more smoothly.
Back in January they lifted the All-Ireland Junior Cup after destroying Bangor 55-5 in the final at Portadown's Chambers Park, and it was a result that certainly grabbed Hunter's attention.
He added: "We'd be more confident if they hadn't beaten Bangor by 50 points but throughout the season they've had a similar record to us."
While formidable that day, they did however show a degree of vulnerability during their semi-final tussle with CIYMS, coming through after a replay, and much will depend on the fitness of Inst forwards Robert Whitten, Rory McCurry and Fergal Lynch.
Connemara clinched the Connacht title last week and Inst will travel to Monastery Field on Saturday, April 11.
The westerners will be the underdogs in the competition, but will be a tougher assignment on their own patch.
Concluding the following week, Instonians will host Munster champions Clonmel.
Coached by former Ireland ace Denis Leamy, they have earned an impressive haul of silverware over the last 12 months but may struggle with two away games to play.
Inst's progress will have a direct bearing on other teams in Qualifying One as, should they not gain promotion, then Donaghadee will fall to the second tier after Ards were demoted from the senior ranks, while qualification for next season's All-Ireland Junior Cup will also be affected.