Methody on course for three-in-row
RBAI and sullivan look best of the rest in Ulster, writes Tony Ward
The Danske Bank Ulster Schools Cup is the world's second oldest rugby competition, with Royal School Armagh (Tommy Bowe's alma mater) the inaugural winners as far back as 1876.
The rolling or open draw has long been at the heart of both Medallion (U-16) and Senior competitions in the north and 2014 will be no different.
The seven Round 1 winners will be joined in Round 2 tomorrow by Bangor Grammar, Belfast High, Belfast Royal Academy (finalists in 2010 with Stuart Olding in their ranks), Coleraine AI, Dalriada, Down High School, Limavady Grammar, Portora Royal and Rainey Endowed School.
While BRA would be the obvious bet to cause a problem for the eight seeded teams who are still to come on board, all the evidence to date suggests Belfast High and Coleraine are the dark horses of this group who might cause an upset for the big guns who enter the fray in Round 3, which will be played on February 8.
The heavy hitters this year are Ballyclare High, who are coached by former Blackrock College RFC centre and former St Gerard's backs coach Mike McKeever; Ballymena Academy, backboned by Ireland Schools squad back-rowers Josh McElroy and No 8 Duncan Maguire, but not as strong collectively as in recent seasons; Campbell College, who seem to have turned the corner at just the right time, with former Ireland No 8 and head coach Brian Robinson particularly pleased with his side's recent win over Blackrock College; Royal School Armagh, buoyed by a recent success over Methodist College, Kenny Hooks' side have the potential to reach the latter stages; Wallace High, one of the strongest teams in this year's competition with Ireland Schools hat-trick hero against the Clubs over Christmas, Jacob Stockdale, the pick of a talented backline; Sullivan Upper, coached by Willie Anderson and, with most of the Medallion Shield winners from 2011 on board, a good outside bet pending the draw; RBAI, losing finalists to Methody in 2013 and along with their fellow Belfast giants one of the big two again this time round; and finally MCB, the eternal favourites, who go in search of three- in-a-row and the ones they all have to beat to achieve outright success every time.
Methody coach Nicky Wells knows what it takes to go the whole way in this great competition and while concerned, if not overly worried, by defeats to Armagh and Blackrock, all signs point to a stout title defence, with the Malone Road school more than adequately equipped to make it a hat-trick for the first time since wins in 1989, '90 and '91.
And with a squad boasting no fewer than six current Irish U-19 or Irish Schools players, including Michael Lagan, Steven Weir, Alex Thompson, Conor McKee, Josh Bingham and Conor Kelly, they are again the pre-competition favourites and with very good reason.
RBAI and Sullivan will test them, possibly Wallace too, but barring a mighty collapse, we're taking the reigning champions Methody to seal the hat-trick deal, thereby making it 35 outright titles – they shared another two – pushing them four ahead of second placed Inst in the all-time honours list.