Ballymena and Malone ready for All Ireland League showdown at Eaton Park

Ballymena coach Andy Graham
Ballymena coach Andy Graham

There is a huge Ulster derby at Eaton Park on the opening day of the Division 1B season as Ballymena host newly promoted Malone.

The sides have met twice already this season in the Senior League and Cup with one win a piece but Ballymena coach Andy Graham isn’t reading much into either game.

“The AIL is different. I expect both teams to be very competitive and a tough encounter. Malone are good physical side and are well organised and they have been playing together for two or three seasons now and they have come back up,” said Graham.

“Our home form was very good last year in the All Ireland, once we got past November we started to play well at home. We need to start well we lost early at home to Banbridge and Ballynahinch last season. If you can win your home games and beat a few teams on the road you won’t be far away.”

Graham is keen that the Braidmen don’t flirt with relegation again in this campaign.

“Previously we would have been starting well then slipping off post Christmas time where last year we got stronger as the season when on. It’s getting the balance right that you are fit to compete the whole way through the season.

“A Saturday home game it does matter who you are playing you have got to be prepared and ready.

“And you need to try and win them and that is what we will be trying to do on Saturday.”

Lock David Whann is expected to fit to partner JJ McKee, young hooker Jonny Spence starts while Conor Smyth, Willie McKay and Stephen Mulholland form an experienced back row.

Timmy Small starts at out half.

Malone coach Paddy Armstrong knows what to expect at Eaton Park.

“Ballymena are going to be a really big challenge and Andy Graham who I have a lot of time for will have them well up for it and they will be well coached and ready for the game ahead,” said Armstrong.

“There is no point in looking too far ahead we’re just doing what we did last year and focus on this game and just see where we are at after a number of games.”

“Speaking to people we are well aware of the physicality as you go up the leagues.

“The boys have trained really hard and their attitude has been superb all preseason, it’s about getting ourselves in a position to compete at that level.”

“We’re happy enough with the recruitment and there was a large retention as well which is a good sign of where the club is at.

“There is always going to be injuries at any level of rugby. There is a good atmosphere around the club and the boys have been working hard.”