Tuesday 25 June 2019

Methody will be pushed hard for 2019 Ulster title

Belfast giants are favourites, but expect a strong charge from Campbell, Inst and Wallace, writes Tony Ward

Thomas Armstrong will be a key player for Methody this season PHOTO: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Thomas Armstrong will be a key player for Methody this season PHOTO: John Dickson/Sportsfile

The inaugural Ulster Schools Cup winners back in 1876 were the Royal School Armagh (RSA), who beat Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) 3-0 at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Grounds at Balmoral.

The inaugural Ulster Schools Cup winners back in 1876 were the Royal School Armagh (RSA), who beat Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) 3-0 at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Grounds at Balmoral.

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The Ulster Schools Cup is the world's second oldest rugby competition, with only the United Hospitals Challenge Cup in London preceding it (by two years).

It is a unique trophy; the original cup is mounted on a shield due to lack of space to record winning schools over the years. Indeed, Methodist College (celebrating the 125th anniversary of the school's foundation this academic year) presented a new and bigger shield in 1976 on the centenary year of the competition.

As coincidence would have it, RSA won in 1977 and the Armagh school's name was again inscribed at the top of the new shield. The original shield is on exhibit at the Ulster Branch offices in Ravenhill.

The Danske Bank Ulster Cup for 2019 is already under way, with Antrim Grammar, Carrickfergus Grammar, Strabane Academy and Wellington College kicking it into gear through the two Round 1 ties played in mid-December. Carrickfergus (24-10) and Strabane (21-17) won and will join 12 more schools in Round 2.

However, it is Round 3 when the big guns begin to appear. This year the seven winners from Round 2 will be joined by Ballyclare High School, Bangor Grammar, Belfast Royal Academy (BRA), Coleraine Grammar, Dalriada School, Omagh Academy, Portadown College, Rainey Endowed and Royal School Dungannon.

The eight winners to emerge then move on to shark-infested waters, with Ballymena Academy, Campbell College, Enniskillen Royal Grammar, Methodist College (Methody), RBAI (Inst), RSA, Sullivan Upper School and Wallace High entering the fray.

All cup games up to and including the quarter-final are played on Saturday mornings at the home venue of the school first out of the draw, with the semis and final moving on to the Kingspan.

With Campbell defending that hard-won 2018 crown (beating RSA 19-13 in the final) where does the competition stand in 2019?

Much will depend on the luck of the rolling draw, although realistically the winner should come from the big eight seeded for Round 4. However, RSA did emerge last year from Round 3 to make it all the way through to the final. Campbell, as one of the big Belfast three along with Methody and RBAI, will fancy their chances of title retention despite a typical low-key first term. And with players of the quality of Conor Rankin, Rex Tinsley, Kieran Robertson, Paddy McAlpine, Jack Bonnor, Harry Owens, Jack Megarry and Jack Stinson on board it would be a foolish man who would dismiss the resolve or talent of a cup return to the Belmont Road.

For Methody (despite contesting the 2017 final, in which they were beaten by RBAI 12-8) five years seems an eternity since that last title (2014) of the 35 taken to date. Losing semi-finalist (to Campbell 8-17) in 2018, the feeling on the ground is of a highly motivated squad set on going the whole way this time round. They can call upon the service of age grade players such as Ben Crangle, Thomas Armstrong, Ethan McIlroy, Chris Larmour, Robbie Armstrong and Kevin McNaboe, while emerging players like Stephen Miller, Callum Davidson, John Fletcher and Tom O'Doherty have fitted in seamlessly. Recent wins over Campbell and Wallace add weight to the 125th anniversary squad on a mission.

Inst (RBAI), three-in-a-row winners between 2015 and 2017 and beaten semi-finalists to Royal School Armagh (26-22) in 2018, are back with that winning appetite as insatiable as ever.

Jason Morgan has taken over from Dan Soper (now at Ulster Rugby) as Director of Rugby, so a period of transition is to be expected. However, he can call upon a quality squad that has beaten Belvedere, St Michael's and Newington College, New South Wales, before Christmas and includes players such as Robin McIlveen, Jude Postlethwaite, Ewan Magee, Bradley McNamara, Josh Patterson, Robert Curry and Marco Manso in the quest for title number 32 (just three behind Methody).

While the three Belfast city schools are set to be in the mix again, support for a talented Wallace squad is also plentiful. That said, when Methody and Wallace came head to head in a pre-Christmas friendly, the city school won comprehensively (38-8). Nathan Doak, son of Neil, is still on board and again the star turn. He has also been at the heart of a successful Ulster schools side in the interpro series over the past two seasons. Ben Carson, Joel Dundas and Reuben Crothers were alongside Doak in that successful Ulster side, while Jack Dillon is another leading try scorer for what is undoubtedly a talented Wallace squad well capable of challenging for the big prize.

Sullivan Upper have also had a promising season to date, with Holywood a most intimidating cup venue for any opposition. Both Campbell and Bangor have bitten the dust against Sullivan, and players such as Conor McKee and George Sanderson have attracted the attention of Ulster (at various levels) and Irish schools. Shay Storey, Thomas Leitch, Harry Baird, Jamie Thallon and Peter Casement are others to have made their mark ahead of what could prove a most interesting cup run - draw depending.

Bear in mind that in 2016, when this group was competing for the Medallion, it was RBAI and Wallace in the final (22-8 to Inst) and not Methody or Campbell. Ballymena Academy has lost a large proportion of last year's squad, with the Medallion side bringing the Shield back to Galgorm Road for only the second time (beating Campbell 10-8 in the 2018 final) and many of that successful under-16 squad are now making the transition to Senior. Chief among the emerging players are back-rower Frankie Andrews, out-half Ross McKay, Harry Andrews, Paul Gocher, Craig Simpson, Alex McKinney and Adam Lamont. A recent win over great Belfast rivals Campbell has made for a timely boost to their confidence.

After last year's encouraging exploits, and with Willie Faloon and Chris Parker again at the coaching helm, The Royal School Armagh again looks a squad (with not that many departures) well capable of challenging all the way. They play an attractive brand of rugby, with players such as Ben Lavery, Charlie Worth, Peter Taylor, Jonny Agnew and Nicky Jennings particularly impressive. The return of Benji Boyd after injury is another positive in their bid to go that one step further than last year.

It's a period of dramatic change at what was once Portora Royal, but now Enniskillen Royal Grammar School. In the summer of 2017 Portora Royal (12-time finalists and six-time winners) merged with Enniskillen Collegiate to form the new Fermanagh-based grammar school.

There was a period of transition on the field, with Rhys Botha, who has contributed so much to rugby in his four years as PE teacher and head coach at Portora, taking up a new position at Bangor Grammar. Ashley Finlay takes over as Head Coach with Stuart McCain as his assistant.

The new coaching duo look set to inherit a squad in pretty good nick, with Enniskillen Royal deservedly seeded among the top eight schools in the province for 2019. Alex Parke is captain and has a real leader alongside in No8 Calum Smyton. Other stand-out performers so far this season include Eddie Keys, Stuart Browne, Neil Rutledge, Ryan Phair and Ben Donaldson. It's a squad well capable of rattling some of the bigger cages in the coming weeks.

If there is to be a potential dark horse, watch for Bangor Grammar. In players such as Ben McCrossan, Gareth Wells, Riley Westwood and Rhys Larmour they have an experienced core, with Aaron Sexton the star turn. The Commonwealth Games 200m Youth gold medallist and Ulster under age player has lined out with the Ireland under-19 team against Australia and more recently played with the Ulster Senior 'A' team in the Celtic Cup.

Much will depend on the draw, but on all evidence to date it looks like Methody ahead of Inst and Campbell, with Wallace pushing hard on the rails.

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