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Crunch time as Malone, Armagh and Rainey aim to take a step up in the world

By Michael Sadlier

This weekend sees the introduction of knockout rugby for those clubs involved as the AIL enters its final stages of sorting out the composition of next season's five divisions.

The gripping play-off process - involving semi-finals to whittle things down to a winner-takes-all final shoot-out - involves three Ulster clubs, with Malone, Armagh and Rainey Old Boys hoping to achieve promotion from their existing places in Divisions 2A, 2B and 2C respectively.

Malone, who finished fourth in 2A, are on the road to Dolphin, who ended up ninth in 1B and are therefore entering a scrap to stay up.

The Gibson Park side have been in a rich vein of form since the turn of the year and will travel to meet the Cork club at Irish Independent Park in confident mood, and particularly so after winning down in Munster at the start of the month when they got the better of Nenagh.

This will actually be their third lengthy trip to the southern province in a month, and should Paddy Armstrong's men triumph this weekend over Dolphin they face yet another journey into the deep south as the Gibson Park squad will then take on the winners of the Highfield v Nenagh play-off.

There is no doubting that taking on Dolphin will be a formidable challenge for Malone as the Cork side have put in a notable late-season surge to escape finishing bottom, while it is doubtful that last week's thumping home win over a Cashel outfit with nothing to play for will have been of huge benefit for the Gibson Park squad as they hit the road south.

Selection-wise, Armstrong hopes to have Jack Owens back in the squad to further add to the notable potency of Malone's backline which already includes former Ulster player Mark McCrea.

Armagh just missed out on topping the 2B table - Greystones won automatic promotion by finishing a point ahead of the Ulster side - but they enter the play-off process with a home tie against Wanderers, who ended up in third and a whopping 21 points behind Alex McCloy's squad in the table.

"It is a bit surprising that we won 16 games and finished with 74 points and yet didn't win the league," said McCloy.

"But we can't really complain and over the course of the season Greystones did a great job.

"We now have to get ourselves up (to 2A) and Wanderers will be an incredibly difficult test and their performance in beating us in Dublin was probably the best we played against."

Armagh, though, did win the first regulation season meeting between the sides at the Palace Grounds, and should the Orchard County side be victorious they will face either Sunday's Well away or Old Crescent at home.

Rainey face a difficult trip to Sligo in their play-off semi-final - the sides finished third and second respectively in 2C - after having lost to the Connacht club on both occasions the sides met during the regulation season.

Head coach John Andrews is hoping to be able to deploy Tommy O'Hagan and John McCusker up front and if Rainey get through they will be facing either a trip to Bective or be hosting Tullamore with a quick return to 2B then up for grabs for the Magherafelt side.

Div 1A semi-finals: Clontarf v Young Munster, Lansdowne v Cork Constitution.

Div 1B play-offs: Garryowen v Old Wesley, Naas v UL Bohs

Div 2A: play-offs: Highfield v Nenagh, Dolphin v Malone

Div 2B play-offs: Armagh v Wanderers, Sunday's Well v Old Crescent

Div 2C play-offs: Bective v Tullamore, Sligo v Rainey.

Belfast Telegraph


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