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Armagh claim first senior league title as AIL safety is closer for Hinch and Bangor


By Michael Sadlier

There was more than a fare share of celebration for Ulster clubs at the weekend with Armagh's winning the SONI Ulster Rugby Premiership title for the first time being the most notable achievement.

But that wasn't all as the AIL had a series of rearranged games which saw both Ballynahinch and Bangor making off with potentially season-saving wins, in terms of escaping looming relegation issues, from their respective divisions.

Dramatic finishes come with the territory at this time of year so it was hardly surprising that those games involviing Hinch and Bangor went right to the wire.

For Hinch, the drama unfolded after a late break out involving Peter Nelson and David Busby which ultimately saw flanker David McGuigan get over the line to tie the scores at Naas, leaving Nelson the conversion to push the Co Down side ahead 16-14.

Derek Suffern's squad then had to survive a long range penalty shot from their hosts, with the last kick of the game, which failed to bisect the uprights giving them a crucial four points to move them up from eighth to sixth in the 1b table - theirs was the only game in the division - and pretty much secure their survival.

Not a bad way to end a four game losing run which had dragged them into a worryingly close proximity to the relegation zone and, as things stand now, two points from their last two games will guarantee Hinch staying up though they may not actaully require them.

Hinch had trailed 14-6 at the break against fourth-placed Naas and after Nelson had kicked another penalty soon after the restart the stage was set for the big finish from McGuigan.

"It was a bit of a miracle job to be honest as we lost hooker Andrew Harper in the warm-up and then five minutes in Justin Rea was off and Jonny Blair too," said Hinch coach Derek Suffern.

"But we just hung in. You couldn't have scripted it but as I said to the boys afterwards the character they showed was phenomenal.

"Everyone fronted up and it was a memorable day.

"The job's not mathematically done but you'd like to think that we'll be ok," added Suffern.

In 2C, Bangor halted a frightening run of eight games without a win when they snatched a 29-28 victory at Midleton courtesy of Gareth Millar's long range kick in the dying minutes.

The victory also brought them a priceless five points thanks to their four tries which were scored by Lewis Sampson - who got two - Desi Fusco and Michael Ferguson.

It all meant that the Seasiders moved up a place to seventh and they are now eight in front of Boyne - who are one off the bottom in the relegation play-off place - with just two games remaining.

Though not out of the woods yet, Jason Morgan's squad have taken a huge stride towards avoiding any threat to their senior status just one season after coming up from the junior ranks.

In 2A, Malone picked up another win to essentially copper-fasten their play-off ambitions when they won 29-22 at Nenagh with a bonus point after being 24-0 in front at the break.

With two to play, Paddy Armstrong's side are now just one behind Nenagh, who are in third, and though they look assured of making the play-offs for promotion they could yet overhaul Highfield - who they visit on Saturday - to secure a home tie in the play-offs.

However, Queen's University lost 32-24 at Corinthians and their hopes of reeling in Malone look all but over.

As for Armagh, their SONI Ulster Premiership title was secured at Ballymena where the visitors' 34-12 bonus point win gave them the domestic league title for the first time.

And it came thanks to a superior points differential from Hinch after they ended up on equal points with the Co Down club who had, of course, other things on their mind via their AIL game at Naas.

The silverware was rightly celebrated by the club who are also firmly in the hunt for promotion in Division 2A of the AIL and could still win that title to nail down a double.

Tries from James Hanna, Stewart Lester and Neil Faloon gave Armagh a 21-5 half-time lead at Eaton Park and former Ulster player Ali Birch got their fourth.


Division 1B: Naas 14 Ballynahinch 16

Division 2A: Corinthians 32 Queen's 24, Nenagh 22 Malone 29

Division 2C: Boyne 12 Seapoint 6, Kanturk 8 Tullamore 16, Midleton 28 Bangor 29.

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