Red-hot Methodist to remain top of pile
For the third year in a row Methodist College begin the Ulster campaign red-hot favourites. But it's a rating well earned as the Belfast school seeks a third title on the bounce; fourth in five years and 33rd overall.
The northern competition is somewhat different and in some ways more exciting, given the rolling aspect to the draw. The heat begins to rise by Round 3 when previous winners Bangor Grammar, Ballyclare High, Coleraine AI, Grosvenor Grammar and Royal School Dungannon enter the fray.
And by Round 4 (scheduled for February 6, but under pressure because of January snow) it hits boiling point with the arrival of the big eight as Ballymena Academy, Belfast Royal Academy, Campbell College, Methodist College, Regent House, RBAI, Royal School Armagh and Wallace High enter the fray.
But once again it's reigning champions Methody they've all got to beat. There is one trophy in the locker already this academic year, with the Belfast school having beaten teams from all over Ireland and the UK for the top prize at the Blackrock 150th Anniversary Rugby Fest back in October. A Paddy Jackson penalty saw them home against Clongowes in a closely fought final.
Jackson, along with half-back partner Blane McIlroy and props Rory Harrison and Conor Carey, are four Ireland U-19 players currently in the Methody side. Add inter-provincial duo flanker Paddy McKee and hooker Gareth Reilly into the mix, and it makes for a half-dozen current representative players in the squad.
Against that, the threat this year will be much more forceful and more evenly spread. Last year's beaten finalists and cross-city rivals Inst (RBAI) are back from warm-weather training in Barcelona over the Christmas period. And with Ireland U-19 centre Michael McAuley the jewel, they too are top-heavy with Ulster representatives, as are Royal School Armagh, Ballymena and Campbell.
So much, of course, depends on the luck of the draw with home advantage crucial at least as far as the semi-final, when neutral Ravenhill comes into play.
But you cannot look beyond Methody and Inst as the two teams most likely to claim the honours. Armagh Royal and Ballymena, however, have distinct chances, while Campbell, Bangor Grammar and a spritely Belfast Royal Academy side -- coached by former World Cup winning U-19 flanker, Chris McCarey -- are also in with a shot in what should be an exciting Ulster schools competition.