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Energia AIL Women’s Playoffs
NOVEMBER 24 2022
All eyes on Energia All-Ireland League as women's play-offs take centre stage.
Having finished top of the regular season table, last season's beaten finalists Blackrock College will have home advantage against UL Bohemians, while defending champions Railway Union will host Old Belvedere in the other division semi-final. The condensed format left little margin for error across the course of the eight regular season games, but in the end, Blackrock and Railway again led the way, with the latter side just three points off top spot.

Although Belvo and Bohs finished third and fourth respectively, both teams will know that such is the unpredictable nature of play-off rugby, anything can happen as they look to topple Blackrock and Railway. 'Rock will come into their last four clash in scintillating form and after maintaining their 100pc winning record courtesy of a resounding 79-0 win over Suttonians, they will fancy their chances of going one better this time around.

Ireland starlet Méabh Deely continues to enhance her growing reputation, with her 24-point haul, which included two tries and seven conversions last time out, really catching the eye. Deely is a major threat on the wing and now that she is the division's second top scorer on 68 points, just two behind her Ireland team-mate Dannah O'Brien, Bohs will have their hands full trying to keep the Ballinasloe flyer quiet.

Rock captain Michelle Claffey brings plenty of class and experience to proceedings, while so too does Hannah O'Connor, whose powerful ball-carrying is a major weapon for her side. However, Bohs are not to be taken lightly, especially not when you see the quality in their ranks. A gritty victory over Galwegians meant Bohs finished the regular season with a fifth win in six games.

That kind of form should not be ignored and while they will be up against it when they travel to Dublin to take on Blackrock, captain Nicole Cronin is a calming presence at out-half, while teenage winger Clara Barrett has scored five tries this season. If the Limerick side can get on top early on, they will make life difficult for Rock, who will be out to avoid an upset and make it back to the final.

Railway remain on course to defend their title despite losing to rivals Blackrock recently in what could prove to be a big psychological blow, if we get a repeat of last season's final. Ireland internationals Aoife Doyle, Ailsa Hughes and Molly Scuffil-McCabe have been in good form for the Sandymount outfit, and while Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe will be unavailable due to Sevens duty, Railway know what it takes to win when it comes to the business end of the season.

Belvo had the final weekend of the regular season off, which meant they consolidated their play-off spot the previous week with a 17-8 win over Wicklow. Having only lost two games this season, Belvo will hold no fear of taking on Railway. In Dannah O'Brien, Belvo have an emerging star, whose 70 points see her come into this fascinating semi-final full of confidence. Skipper Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird is an important cog in the Belvo wheel, and the hooker will be hoping to inspire her side to what would be a huge win.

Meanwhile, the conference semi-finals will see Wicklow taking on Ballincollig at Ashton Lane, with Galwegians welcoming Suttonians to Crowley Park. Considering Wicklow finished highest in the table from the four teams competing in the conference play-offs, and the fact that they really pushed Railway, they will be hopeful of continuing their rise through the ranks.

Fresh from their first victory of the season, Fiona Hayes' Ballincollig will be aiming to make it two wins on the bounce by seeing off Wicklow.  Nicole Fowley's 56 points have been vital to Galwegians, and if the out-half hits her straps, she is capable of steering the Galway side to a win over Suttonians, who will be hoping Australian prop Janita Kareta can provide the spark for them. 

As ever, Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams will be keeping a close eye on proceedings, with plenty of rugby to be played over the coming months. Players will be eager to impress ahead of what is a big year on the international front, as Ireland continue to rebuild under McWilliams, and the vastly experienced John McKee, who has joined the Ireland coaching staff on a full-time basis.

Last season's Energia AIL final was a stunning showcase of everything good about women's rugby, as Railway and Blackrock served up a brilliant spectacle. The play-offs have the potential to throw up plenty more thrills, and although many people will be expecting Railway and Blackrock to renew their rivalry in the final, Old Belvedere and UL Bohemians will relish the underdog status.

It promises to be another unmissable finish to what has already been, a very strong Energia AIL campaign.

Written by - Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer Irish Independent