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St Michael's and Blackrock are in a league of their own

Quality-laden duo remain the teams for the chasing pack to avoid

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Simply the best: St Michael’s College celebrate following their victory against Gonzaga College in last year’s Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at the RDS. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Simply the best: St Michael’s College celebrate following their victory against Gonzaga College in last year’s Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at the RDS. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Simply the best: St Michael’s College celebrate following their victory against Gonzaga College in last year’s Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at the RDS. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Much has been made of the quantity and quality of players being churned out to the professional game by two schools, in particular, in recent times. Holy Ghost giants St Michael's (because that is what the Ailesbury Road school now is) and Blackrock College deserve every bouquet coming their way.

Winning the much-coveted trophy is the collective ambition of almost every school. And when quantity and quality are matched by individual dedication and hunger, you are looking at a system in need of very little tweaking. Leinster Rugby at senior level is in such a good place because of the Leinster Schools system, which has served the game in the province so well for so long.

Off the top of my head I can name Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Ryan Baird, Scott Penny, Harry Byrne, Jack Kelly, Liam Turner, Tommy O'Brien, Charlie Ryan, Josh Murphy and Paddy Patterson as having made the breakthrough. And, believe me, that list goes on.

If any further proof is needed, then I suggest a trek down to Donnybrook (Energia Park). It's worth the effort in the coming weeks as, not just St Michael's and Blackrock, but every school displays its talent, organisation and conditioning to the public. That said, at this point in time, Leinster's current big two (with respect to Belvedere, Clongowes, Gonzaga and the rest) are operating at a different level. This year, draw depending, it will be no different as both Spiritan schools again appear to be a class above the rest.

But a cup is a cup - the beauty of which is its "on the day" knock-out unpredictability. Yet it's difficult to look beyond the big two as this season St Michael's field their 'Dream Team' - very much in the image of Barry Gibney, Leo Cullen, Bob Casey and the Blackrock equivalent of 1995/96.

Does it make Michael's unbeatable? No, not in the least. In fact, they lost four friendlies before Christmas when going down to CBC Cork, St Mary's, Blackrock and Welsh school side Coleg y Cymoedd. Still, when on top of their game and at full tilt, they field the strongest unit. Blackrock, however, remain ready to pounce should the defending champions produce an indifferent performance along the way.

The draw - made by Jimmy O'Brien (ex-Newbridge), Scott Penny (ex-Michael's) and Jack Conan (ex-Gerard's) - in Bank of Ireland HQ in early December was kind overall, making for a relatively even spread of games. But last year's beaten finalists Gonzaga were paired with Blackrock in the plum tie of the opening round.

This eagerly-awaited clash between another particularly strong Gonzaga side (the senior league title is already back in Ranelagh) and the cup kingpins will get it all underway tomorrow. I don't think it's stretching it to suggest Gonzaga are third, behind the big two. Blackrock will be pushed to the limit but might just survive.

On Monday, Roscrea and Castleknock spring into action. CCR took the round-robin league game between the pair en route to that December final where they lost out to an on-fire Gonzaga. But this is a developing Castleknock side under Jeremy Staunton and Adrian Flavin. The west Dublin school will quietly fancy their chances.

On Tuesday, the Belvedere class of 2020 and St Mary's College display their wares as D1 and D6 come head-to-head. Belvo's record in recent years is up there with the best - four finals and two wins in the last five. Indeed, they lost out by a whisker (16-15) to eventual winners St Michael's in last year's semi-final. Mary's, on the other hand, will be relying heavily on the JCT finalists from 2018. A little bit too much, too early perhaps, with the Great Denmark Street school very definite pre-match favourites to come through.

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On Wednesday, the 2003 and 2011 winners pitch up, in the guise of Terenure and Clongowes Wood respectively. It is a difficult one to call but when the team from Clane is going reasonably well in the opening term, then watch out world. Some big scalps have fallen to a Clongowes squad unquestionably on the rise. Methody, Ballymena Academy, CBC Cork, Crescent Comprehensive and Blackrock have all been humbled pre-Christmas. Terenure, too, have been on the receiving end. The cup is a different animal, but then so too are Clongowes come cup time. We suspect Terenure will have it all to do.

Thursday sees three first-round ties down for decision, with Kilkenny and Wesley set to meet at Energia Park in a match that could swing either way. Elsewhere, in venues situated just a healthy Garryowen boot apart, St Gerard's will meet Vinnie Murray Cup 'Qualifier 2' (in Templeville Road) while St Michael's begin their defence against 'Qualifier 1' (at Lakelands).

All of which leaves CBC Monkstown and Newbridge College last out of the traps in Energia Park on Friday. Newbridge pick from a particularly strong squad this year and, as exemplified by the early stages of the round-robin league when they topped the section, they have what it takes to mix it with the best this time around. Ian Dumbleton will have his charges highly motivated but the Kildare school will be favoured to qualify.

The second round (quarter-finals) will be played on the week commencing Monday February 10. We'll not pretend to be a Mystic Meg, but based on pre-Christmas evidence allied to gut instinct, and with absolute impartiality, we're going for Blackrock, Roscrea, Belvedere, Clongowes, Wesley, St Gerard's, St Michael's and Newbridge to qualify for that second roll of the drum. Michael's and Blackrock, in that order, remain the two to beat and, by extension, avoid until the last four at least.

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