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Understrength Armagh's title defence faces a stern examination as Hinch look to avenge previous loss

By Ronnie Ingram

City of Armagh have won the SONI Ulster Premiership for the last two seasons, but they couldn't have asked for a more difficult first game in the defence of the Stevenson Shield than a visit to Ballynahinch at Ballymacarn Park this afternoon.

Armagh have enjoyed an exceptional couple of seasons with successive promotions in the All-Ireland League - they are now in Division 1B along with Ballymena, Malone, Ballynahinch and Banbridge - as well as winning the Senior Cup for the first time in December.

They, like their opponents, will not be at full strength today as a number of players are still on holiday or have cricket commitments. Absentees include second row line-out expert Josh McKinley, flanker Robbie Whitten and winger Euan Cromie, but new recruit Ollie Millar from UCC will be in the second row.

Coach Willie Faloon, who has been with the successful Ulster Schools' team in Limerick this week and returns to the Munster venue for their deciding game against Leinster on Sunday, knows that victory in the Hinch game is vital.

He said: "The absence of key players happens but we have been unfortunate that full-back Timmy McNeice twisted his ankle in pre-season training and will be out for a few weeks.

Nevertheless, we have put in a lot of work recently and have already had a couple of useful performances."

On paper, Hinch would appear to be the stronger. Their experience comes in the powerhouse of John Donnan and James Simpson in the second row, Conall Boomer in the back row and Conor Piper hooking.

Captain Aaron Cairns, on the wing with Stuart Morrow, and Ricky Rainey in the centre can expect a good service from scrum-half Rhys O'Donnell.

In a competition that only involves five fixtures, an early loss can virtually knock a team out of contention, and Hinch need no reminding that was the outcome when they conceded five points at Armagh when losing 32-19 last August. For three seasons, Hinch started their challenge away from home but, after representation to the Ulster Branch, it has now been decided that all first fixtures will be alternated.

Queen's finished undefeated in Division 2 to gain promotion and now face a difficult hurdle against Ballymena, although they do have home advantage.

Malone also gained All-Ireland League promotion last year and they have home advantage against Banbridge.

Fixtures: Div 1: Ballynahinch v Armagh, Malone v Banbridge, Queen's v Ballymena. Div 2: Belfast Harlequins v Dungannon, City of Derry v Armagh, Omagh v Rainey

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