AIL RUGBY: Rivals prepare to clash as Division 2A title race gathers pace

Ulster 'A' back Robert Lyttle will start for Queen's against Malone
Ulster 'A' back Robert Lyttle will start for Queen's against Malone

Four of the top five in Division 2A clash so the promotion and play-off picture could become clearer come Saturday teatime.

Malone lead the table by three points and host cross city rivals Queen’s at Gibson Park, while second-placed Banbridge host Cashel – a place below them on points difference.

Malone went top of the league with a bonus point win against Thomond last time out and head coach Jarrett Truscott is hoping they can stay there.

“There will be 20 guys ready and pumped, being top of the league brings its own pressures as everybody wants to pass you, with Banbridge and Cashel playing each other it is an opportunity to open up a gap but we are just concentrating making an impression on Queen’s,” said Truscott.

Queen’s went fifth after a win at Cashel last time out and Truscott is hoping his abrasive pack can edge the game.

“Students tend not to be as structured and just play what is in front of them but we are focused on our game and brining the intensity,” he said.

“The game will be dictated by the conditions. It’s soft underfoot at Gibson Park so it will be a physical encounter but we have the players up front to deal with that.

“We have been trying to keep a lid on it this week but there will be no problem with motivation and the boys have been talking about it for a few weeks.”

Malone assistant coach Paddy Armstrong won the Frist Trust Senior Cup and the Dudley Cup while he was in charge of the students.

“Paddy will know a few of the Queen’s boys and will give us an insight but it is all about us,” he added.

Truscott has the luxury of keeping the same starting pack that was victorious against Neagh.

Gary Crawford, Tristan King and Philip Eadie are in the front row, Cory Tipping and Richard Millar are in the engine room, with James McAlister, captain Neil Alcorn and Ross Todd in the back row.

There is one change behind the pack as Michael Barker comes onto the wing to face his former club.

Queen’s have a front row crisis, Brian Cunningham is serving a one-week suspension after being sent off in the Ulster Senior League last weekend at Dungannon.

Jake Byrne has not been released, while Johnny Craig and Jordan Southway are struggling with injury and hooker Saul Herdman is unavailable.

Hugh Sloan is unavailable so Alex Thompson and Marc Campbell form the second row partnership while No8 Nick Timoney is with the Ireland 7’s.

Ulster ‘A’ backs Jonny McPhillips and Robert Lyttle start while scrum half Liam Free is on the bench.

Banbridge will welcome a return to Rifle Park after letting another away game slip in the closing stages at UCC.

Dan Soper’s side have dropped nine points on the road after conceding late scores while Cashel have lost to Malone and Queen’s in their last two games.

“We haven’t lost at home yet, we’ve lost three games on the road by the narrowest of margins and we need to finish those off,” said Soper.

“The league is very tight and we could start to see a separation, if we win the next three games would be close to the top and have a real charge after Christmas but if you lose a couple you could drop of the pace.

“We’ll just aim to get a result against Cashel and it is an important three weeks for everyone.”

Bann welcome back Nico Voster to the back row after missing the trip to UCC while Andy Morrison returns to the matchday squad after being side lined with a knee injury.

Josh Cromie starts at scrum half while Colin Bickerstaff comes out of retirement to take a place on the bench.