Inst hit a rich vein of form as they chase back-to-back Ulster titles
East Belfast school are in the ascendancy as they target Senior Cup again as well as a three-in-a-row in the Medallion Shield
Inst came of age last year in Ulster. They did so in becoming the third school this century to take home both Medallion Shield (under-16) and Senior Cup (well, wooden shield) when emulating city rivals Campbell College (2002) and Methodist College (2013).
For Wallace High it was a bitter pill to swallow, with the Lisburn school losing out narrowly to Inst in both finals as the search for that elusive first outright success continues (they did share the 2010 Medallion trophy with Campbell following a 10-10 draw in the Ravenhill finale of that year).
For Inst (Royal Belfast Academical Institution), second only to Methody in the overall roll of honour at both age grades, this is proving a rich period for rugby in the east Belfast school under Dan Soper and Richard Hedley. Having halted the Malone Road quest for four Senior titles in a row in 2015, Inst are now chasing back-to-back Senior titles as well three in a row at Medallion for the first time since 1980-82 inclusive.
Ballyclare High, Bangor Grammar, Belfast Royal Academy (BRA), Dalriada School, Grosvenor, Omagh Academy, Portora Royal, Rainey Endowed and Regent House will compete in the second round this weekend with Portadown College, Friends School, Lisburn, Limavady Grammar, Foyle College, Antrim Grammar, Dalriada, Royal School, Armagh and the Royal School Dungannon for a precious place in round three and the last 16 when the big eight for this year join in.
In alphabetical order they are Ballymena Academy, Campbell, Coleraine Grammar School (formerly Coleraine Academical Institution), Down High School, Methodist College, Inst, Sullivan Upper and Wallace High. The third round will take place on February 6, and it's likely that the eventual winner will come from one of these schools.
Indeed, depending on the draw, the likely outcome based on all evidence to date is that the winner will come from Ballymena Academy, Campbell, Inst or Wallace High. Ballymena Academy have had a good season built on a very strong pack of forwards. Alexander Clarke was a member of last season's Ireland under-18 FIRA squad and is a key player in that unit where he is joined by Jonny McKeown (also a member of the 2015 FIRA squad) and Marcus Rea in a particularly dynamic back-row.
Campbell, much like Clongowes in Leinster, have kept well below the radar. However, recent victories over Ballymena Academy and Inst would suggest they are starting to hit form at just the right time. Much like Ballymena, the Belfast school fields another very strong underage pack with key performers in tighthead Tom O'Toole, back-rower Matthew Crowther and yet another representative player in No 8 Jack Barry-Glendinning.
The Inst team includes Ireland under-18 training camp members Callum Reid and James Hume. Team captain Conor Field has made a successful return from injury and has scored a number of tries from his wing position since. Hume and Joe Finnegan are other key members of an attack-minded back division.
Could this finally be the year of the Wallace breakthrough at Senior? They have enjoyed a most impressive season so far and in team captain Jonny Stewart, another member of the FIRA Ireland squad, have a potentially outstanding young player in the key scrum-half position. Others back from last year's beaten finalists include centre Ben Finlay and lock Gary Dillon.
Methody have had a mixed season to date but nobody is writing off a team coached by Nicky Wells and Stephen Lindsay. With representative players of the quality of Josh Jordan and Zac Jordan (both Ireland under-19) the potential is there, particularly with a more than useful half-back pairing in Jonny Jordan and Paul Kerr to drive their course.
Recent wins over Wallace as well as the Portuguese National under-19 team indicates the seriousness of the intent to get back on that winning track and with it outright title number 36.
But if there is to be a surprise in the course of this season's Danske Bank Ulster Schools Cup, then it could come from the 'new' kids on the block - Coleraine Grammar School. Coleraine AI played their last ever Ulster Schools Cup game when they were beaten by Inst in last year's semi-final(10-6).
After a shaky start to the season the Richard Boyd-coached Coleraine Grammar are beginning to make waves with recent wins over Campbell and Methody. Out-half Callum Smith is on the Ireland under-18 radar and his form will be central in the upcoming campaign.
The Sullivan Upper team has had a frustrating season so far, but with Willie Anderson at the helm, hopes are high of going one better than 2014 when the Holywood School (alma mater of Rory McIlroy) made the final for the first time ever only to lose out to Methody (27-12) on the biggest day in their rugby-playing history to date.
International schoolboy athlete as well as Ulster and Ireland Schools rugby star Chris Jordan played in that game and, along with the likes of Ruairi Meharg, Rory Kilpatrick and Luke Coulter, is hopeful of making the breakthrough in another attack-minded side.
Down High School surprised themselves and many others when nominated one of the seeded eight this time around. They have two Ulster players in their ranks in Zach Ward (son of former Ulster and Ireland flanker Andy) and Clayton Milligan, who form part of an abrasive Down High pack. Flanker and team captain William Martin, along with scrum-half Lewis Finlay, are two other hugely influential players to watch.
So much will depend on the rolling draw and the more highly fancied teams avoiding each other until as late in the competition as possible. It would be great for the game in the province if Wallace or Sullivan could make that richly-deserved breakthrough but, along with Down High, one thing guaranteed is that they are going to have to earn that right.