Derby success can point the way to survival
Though there is still plenty of time remaining to turn things around, it's difficult to view tonight's Ulster derby meeting between Dungannon and Malone (kick-off 7.30pm) as anything other than an encounter which will go some way to plotting the route towards survival for one of the protagonists.
The clubs prop up the table on nine points with hosts Dungannon bottom due to an inferior points differential (minus 128 against Malone's minus 62) and this despite the fact that Gannon have two wins behind them while Malone have acquired just the sole success which came from this corresponding fixture at the start of the campaign back in September.
It is sure to be a tense affair and Gannon are somewhat bolstered for tonight's must-win encounter by released Ulster squad members Peter Nelson and Adam Macklin while Stuart McCloskey, who featured for the Ulster Ravens recently, is also togging out.
With their next game against fellow strugglers Dublin University, Gannon urgently need to kick-start their season by now getting the better of the sides around them and, basically, this process has to begin tonight.
Malone, who come into the game off eight straight defeats, albeit with the last three being very close affairs, have Conor Joyce back from the Ravens and their pack will be further bolstered by the presence of the newly returned James McCallister who will feature either in the second or back row.
Michael Ferguson and Ross Kane will also be at second row and prop respectively after both had to retire hurt in the 10-3 loss at Corinthians last time out.
Peter Henderson should be at full-back while coach Jacques Benade will have either John Creighton or youngster Rob Haldane at out-half – James McKinney has not been released by Ulster due to injury – as the Gibson Park side seek a hat-trick of successes over Gannon following on from last month's Ulster League win at Stevenson Park.
Sixth-placed Belfast Harlequins have a strong line-up heading to Buccaneers for tomorrow's game with Neil McComb, Ricky Lutton, Michael Heaney and Rory Scholes all having been released to the club who will, though, have to get used to not having number eight Frank Taggart who is part of the Ireland Under-20s Six Nations squad.
Up in Division 1A, Ballynahinch are seeking to follow up their eye-catching victory at UCD by taking Dolphin's scalp at Ballymacarn Park.
One from bottom Hinch will be seeking to escape their current predicament against a side just four points – and two places – ahead of them and have David McIlwaine, Kyle McCall and Jonny Murphy all in their ranks for another of those must-win clashes.
Michael Graham and Robert Greer are available again while Harry McAleese is at scrum-half, with Richie Lobb getting another run at out-half after going so well at UCD.
Hinch have Michael Lawton still available and dual status player Kenny Morton will also be deployed but coach Derek Suffern will, however, have to make do without Ross Adair after he picked up a knee injury playing for the Ravens.