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Rugby: Belvo out to tame 'Rock

It doesn't get much bigger or better than Blackrock College and Belvedere College going toe-to-toe in the opening salvo of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup first round at Donnybrook on Sunday afternoon.

By all accounts, this could be a closer shave than that provided by a Gillette, as two giants of the province reconvene after their pre-Christmas friendly (surely not the correct word) ended with 'Rock coming out on the right side of a one-score game (17-10).

So much has happened since then as every school has suffered from the winter snowfest, which has slowed and hindered the preparations of those not lucky enough to have availed of winter training in a warmer climate.

It is true to say Blackrock do not have the five-star generals that permeated their Cup-winning collection from last season, one in which they accounted for Belvedere 16-12 in the semi-final.

What 'Rock do have is a fully fit squad and an unbreakable bond that will see them realise their potential, whether that is going out valiantly in the first round or defying the sceptics all the way to the final on St Patrick's Day, or thereabouts.

They also have the good fortune to be able to select from a full deck of cards, with captain David Godfrey, an U19 inter-pro, set to show the way as the pivot at out-half in what is a side not short of representative talent.

Hooker Paddy Carroll and big ball- winning second rows Sam Cooke and Jack Kelly will win enough possession for Leinster U18 scrum-half Marcus Walsh and Godfrey to free-up silky runners outside in Leinster U18 wing Mark Roche, back from injury and Leinster U19 wing Caolann Fitzpatrick.

Unsurprisingly, coach Peter Smyth is not looking beyond the first round: "It is a huge game for us. It may be a cliche, but it is true to say it is going to come down to whoever performs better on the day."

"I don't see anything between the sides. It is a real 50-50 cup match between two good teams," stressed Smyth.

The champions come into this tournament with an underwhelming reputation, suffering defeats to St Mary's College and Ballymena Academy since Christmas. They do not have a single player who started on last year's championship side.

On the other hand, Belvo can call on four in the form of out-half John Fitzgerald, full-back Cian Kennedy, left wing Donal Murray and No 8 Michael Oyuga, their captain.

The Black and Whites have also been bolstered by the repair from long-term injury of openside Neil O'Flynn and Fitzgerald, in addition to the intermittent absence of centre Farrell McManus. In short, they are at full-strength. The inner-city northsiders may have to overcome a disadvantage in preparation as they have struggled for fixtures since the turn of the year, managing only a win over Crescent Comprehensive and a training run-out against the Clontarf U20s.

Gabriel Fulcher will be looking to even the score against Blackrock in his third year as coach at Belvedere. The former Ireland international second row won the competition in his inaugural season in 2008.

Then he came a cropper against a Blackrock edition containing Andrew Conway, Brendan Macken and Jordi Murphy in the semi-final last year.

Could they be undercooked? "I suppose it is possible. Those kinds of things are difficult to read. I think we will be OK. Ideally, I would have liked one more match," said Fulcher.

"At the same time, I didn't feel the need to squeeze extra late fixtures in over the last few weeks. It is better to be in the situation we are on than risking injuries and over-playing to compensate.

"We will be looking to even the score this year. No disrespect to 'Rock, but we could have beaten them last year. They got a couple of seven-pointers with tries they had no right to get, but, then again, maybe that was down to the sort of (great) players they had."

The holders do not have the same mercurial, match-turning players in their line-up this time around. They will be bonded together by their reputation as a below- average 'Rock side.

Verdict: Blackrock

Belvedere College: C Kennedy; M Kavanagh, F McManus, J Harte, D Murray; J Fitzgerald, D Shanahan; C Duffy, C Walsh, S Lynch, D van Buren, P Farrelly-Pendred, J Conroy, N O'Flynn, M Oyuga (capt).

Blackrock College: TBC.