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Hinch and Bann go head-to-head in play-off derby showdown

 

By Michael Sadlier

It looks almost scripted as Ulster's top two clubs now must battle each other in a derby knockout game to further their ambitions of making the All-Ireland League's top flight.

As such, Rifle Park will be a cauldron of intensity this afternoon as Banbridge and Ballynahinch slug it out in their promotion play-off semi-final with only one then being able to go forward and have a shot at the final shoot-out over potentially getting Ulster representation into Division 1A.

But, elsewhere, there are other hugely significant knockout games to be played out, with Division 2A's City of Armagh at Highfield for their semi-final, while in 2B, Rainey Old Boys host MU Barnhall.

At the other end of the 2B table, Belfast Harlequins, who finished in ninth, meet Malahide, who ended up fourth in 2C, with the Deramore side needing to win to avoid the drop.

And, in 2C, surprise package Omagh Accies host Thomond as the Tyrone club bid to close in on potential promotion from their first season back in the All-Ireland League.

But back to the most eye-catching clash as Hinch aim to regather their season by getting the better of Bann.

An unexpected draw at Old Wesley, followed up by last weekend's home defeat to Old Belvedere, saw Hinch slip from first to third in the final table which now forces Brian McLaughlin's squad to travel to Rifle Park -Bann having stolen into second - to keep their bid to return to 1A on track.

"We didn't win (at home to Belvo) because our workrate, our desire and our passion were not where they needed to be," said Hinch director of rugby Ronnie Duncan.

"(Bann) are favourites so we have to deal with it, but we can deal with it," he added confidently.

Ulster senior names Peter Nelson, Aaron Cairns, Pete Browne and David Busby are all released for Hinch.

Bann have, admittedly, won both regulation season clashes between the Ulster rivals, but this is now new ground for both sides in knockout rugby.

"There has been a bit of a change in mindset from the players this year, but this is a one-off game and what has happened in the (immediate) past is done," said Bann coach Dan Soper.

Armagh's nabbing of fourth gets them a shot at replicating last season's achievement when they came up from 2B but they face quite a task at Highfield.

Rainey are restored to full strength for their game with Barnhall and have Tommy O'Hagan starting with Tim Barker also on board.

Omagh aim to field the same 15 which won against Bruff and are hungry to beat the Limerick side who won at Omagh in the regulation season.

"We are delighted to be here," said coach Phil Marshall, "and we've a lot of respect for Thomond, but we don't fear them."

Play-off semis for Ulster clubs: 1B: Bann v Hinch, 2A : Highfield v Armagh, 2B: Rainey v Barnhall, Quins v Malahide, 2C: Omagh v Thomond

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