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Malone favourites to win first derby clash

By Michael Sadlier

With the division now no longer resembling a mini-Ulster league, thanks to Ballynahinch's promotion and Ballymena's demotion, there will certainly be fewer derbies now that there are only three clubs from this side of the border left in situ.

Even so, for all that, tomorrow's opening round of games has one such encounter as Malone host Dungannon at Gibson Park with both sides considerably bolstered by releases from Ulster as they seek to start with an all-important win.

Malone, who finished a respectable fifth last time out, expect to have Mike McComish in club colours while New Zealand prop Bronson Ross, who arrived this season via Coventry, may be released from Ulster's bench depending on game time tonight.

The Gibson Park side's selection is also supplemented by the more regular availability of Alan O'Connor and Conor Joyce and both will give coach Jacques Benade a strong looking pack to take on Gannon.

New forwards coach Michael Ferguson – who has been involved with the Ulster U19s – is also likely to be part of the squad and the former Belfast Harlequins player could add his bulk to Malone's efforts up front, while John Creighton could well be pulling the strings as starting out half.

Lee McClure, Phil Eadie, Ben Alexander and Richard Millar are all new signings who are expected to be in contention for the match-day squad as are other new arrivals in the shape of last season's Schools' Cup winners Ross Kane, Rudolph Benade and Adam Liddell who are all ex-Methody players.

Dungannon coach Paddy Johns will be hoping his charges have a better season this time out after finishing one place above the relegation zone and the Tyrone side bring the cutting edge of Peter Nelson and Chris Cochrane into their backline, while Ulster's Sean Doyle will be at flanker.

Belfast Harlequins open their account at home to Buccaneers and have Neil McComb in harness while Michael Heaney may be involved depending on his game time with Ulster.

"We're expecting Buccs to be strong, they always are and it will be a tough opener," Quins' coach Adam Larkin said.

"We've a lot of new faces in this season and now it's a chance to see what these guys are like at AIL level," he added after the squad lost the services of Kiwi flanker Lawrence Babe and Exile number eight Sean O'Connell, while prop Adam Macklin has been assigned to Dungannon.

Quins should have new signing Liam Cambridge at out half after his arrival at Deramore from England on former Ulster player Simon Mason's recommendation, and with Mark Kettyle still part of the playing squad there is ample experience there to guide the newcomers through.

The forwards should also benefit from the three-man coaching team of Andrew Gillespie, Alistair Heatlie and Robert Logan with each focusing on their respective specialist areas namely the breakdown, lineout and scrummaging.

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