Though the three-way scramble for the title, unsurprisingly, goes to this weekend’s last round, both Ballynahinch and Banbridge have dented their hopes of finishing top.
Hinch lost their place as leaders and slipped to second after drawing 14-14 at Old Wesley while Banbridge’s 32-31 defeat at UCC kept them in third.
Even though both Hinch and Bann managed to gather up two points from the latter’s draw and the former’s narrow defeat and four-try bonus, Shannon’s hard-fought win at Old Belvedere put them top — one point ahead of Hinch and two better than Bann — to set up this weekend’s dramatic finish.
With Shannon hosting fourth-placed UCC — the students could potentially snatch third from Bann but may just settle for fourth and a play-off with 1A’s St Mary’s College — both Hinch and Bann know that they must deliver big from their respective home games with Old Belvedere and UL Bohemians while hoping the wheels come off in Limerick for the current leaders.
Though Hinch had a strong enough team for their visit to struggling Welsey, Brian McLaughlin’s side found the going tough.
The artificial surface undoubtedly didn’t help, but Hinch were unable to pull away in a game of nip and tuck from the opening 40 minutes which saw the sides locked together at 6-6.
Even more alarming for the Ulstermen was the sight of Wesley scoring a try with just 14 of their players on the park and a subsequent penalty put the hosts 14-9 in front with time running out.
But Hinch came back through a Conal Boomer try with just five minutes to go which tied the scores though Richard Reaney — who had earlier kicked three penalties — was wide with the crucial conversion.
There was plenty of drama in Cork as Bann came back against UCC after looking dead and buried at 20-3 down to then trail 25-24 only to fall further behind again with Nick Hayes’s late converted try seeing Dan Soper’s players lose by a solitary point.
It could hardly have been a more alarming opening for Bann as UCC raced to a 20-3 lead which stood at 25-10 at half-time, the visitors having worked James Hume over the line.
Converted tries after the break from Conor Field and Andrew Morrison got Bann right back into contention but UCC’s fourth try just took it out of the Rifle Park side’s reach.
Hayes’s bonus point try, and Adam Doherty’s fourth conversion, at least gave Bann two points.
Meanwhile, Ballymena took what they hope will be a decisive step to securing their presence in next season’s division after beating already relegated Dolphin 43-27 in Cork.
The five-point victory saw the Braidmen move up a place to seventh and are now three ahead of ninth-placed Bohs with a home game to come against Wesley who are eighth.
Ulster’s Clive Ross scored twice for the Braidmen as did James Gallagher in the six-try win while Brett Herron kicked five conversions and a penalty.
1B: Dolphin 27 B’mena 43, Wesley 14 Hinch 14, UCC 32 Bann 31