This weekend sees the return of the British and Irish Cup take its place in the rugby diary as one of this season’s highlights. With a fresh faced format and an expansion in numbers, the cross-border competition has raised its profile, providing a platform for vigorous action-packed displays. Ulster Ravens entertain a strong pool, with Bristol and Cardiff amongst the headliners as debutants Bridgend Ravens offer up the first home test.
In its fourth season, the competition has welcomed an additional twelve teams into its fold with thirty-two clubs now contesting for the Cup. A change in format sees clubs face one another both home and away in the pool stages, with the competition now taking place over nine rounds and seeking to align with both the Heineken and Amlin Cup fixture lists.
Through the removal of the play off pool in the Championship, the stakes have been raised with only the pool victors qualifying for the quarter-finals. Such efforts to revamp the formation of the tournament undoubtedly reflect the commitment of the second tier and semi-professional squads, in ensuring the growth and promotion of the Cup throughout the British and Irish Isles.
Ulster Ravens will take to Deramore Park, the home of Belfast Harlequins, for their introduction into the competition against Bridgend Ravens this Saturday. For the Welsh Ravens, it is their first taste of British and Irish action, with the Irish Ravens emerging as odds on favourites.
Following a recent spell with injury, the experienced Roger Wilson is set to return to the field in his treasured position at number 8. Neil McComb has been awarded the captain’s armband and will seek to lead a young side in the second row. Members of Ulster Under-20 Inter-provincial Grand Slam squad also feature, with the talented Stuart Olding, Conor Joyce and Rory Scholes included in the action. Ali Birch at openside flanker and Niall O’Connor at fly-half will be ones to look out for, as a blend of youth and experience runs throughout 1 to 15.
The Bridgend debutants compete in the Welsh Principality Premiership and currently reside in the lower half of the table. Although the squad are not the strongest of the Welsh contingents in the competition, they still possess a physical pack and key individuals who can turn a game when and if required.
Wales Under-20 star Luke Morgan will conduct from fly-half, having totalled 156 points for the Ospreys in his three seasons associated with the club. A Bridgend crowd favourite in Jamie Murphy provides electric pace from full-back and is a regular try scorer on match day. Although Bridgend’s troops are strong in areas, the Ulster Ravens should dominate the majority of play with a win to be expected.
Definite challenges will arrive in subsequent games against Bristol and Cardiff for Allen Clarke’s men. Bristol will host the Ravens on the 21st of October at the Memorial Stadium, and the Ravens respectively on the 11th of January at Deramore, with the English southerners forcasted to launch an agressive yet free-flowing attack at either fixture. A potential outside half partnership of Ruki Tipuna and Matthew Jones would indicate a solid backline, whilst captain Iain Grieve and the familiar face of David McIlwaine should also present problems.
A chilly December will see the Ravens invite Cardiff to Belfast for a festive showdown and Cardiff challenging the Ravens at Arms Park at either ends of the month. Wing Steven Cullen and the versatile Ellis Jenkins are among the key men for the Welsh side, however if the Ravens can build momentum throughout games prior to these meetings, a place in the quater-final could well be the outcome.
A captivating campagin ahead for the Ulstermen, the pool stages may require attention to detail but expect to see the Ravens in the closing stages of the competition, contesting for the ultimate crown.