The old reliables will deliver at Junior level
The big provincial prizes at under-16 level in 2018 went to Blackrock College, Dublin, St Munchin's College, Limerick, Marist College, Athlone, and Ballymena Academy. So, one year on, where stands the title defence in all four provinces?
In Leinster 'Rock are again the one they all have to beat, with St Michael's yet again the most likely to topple them. Much will depend on the draw. Last year the big two Spiritan schools were drawn together in the opening round and the winner of that tie was always set to go the whole way.
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So it came to pass, but with a particularly good St Mary's squad providing more than credible opposition in the final (taken by 'Rock 24-14). Of the eight finals thus far this decade, six have gone to Williamstown and two to Ailesbury Road. You've to go all the way back to 2005 for the last Junior final at this level when either 'Rock or Michael's weren't involved, and back before that again to 1997 when one or other failed to make it through.
The draw hasn't been kind, with 'Rock's mettle certain to be tested by a Belvedere side that has had the benefit of Andy Wood's coaching at under-15 along the way. Michael's will have a tough nut to crack too in the shape of CBC, Monkstown.
Clongowes will kick it all off against another particularly promising Castleknock side at Energia Park on Sunday next. 'Knock went down to eventual winners Newbridge (15-17) at the penultimate stage in the League, with the Kildare school going on to deny Gonzaga a Junior-Senior League double by a similar margin (26-24) in a most exciting final.
Newbridge will face Temple Carrig in Round 1 and here again it speaks volumes for the progress being made at the Greystones school that again they have qualified for the main competition through a top-four finish in the League. Newbridge will be hot favourites, but don't rule out the unexpected.
And as at Senior, the Junior draw pairs Terenure and St Mary's together in Round 1. Expect there to be precious little in it; an atmosphere to rival that at Senior is guaranteed.
However, as long as the big two can avoid each other along the way, it is difficult to look beyond a fourth all-Spiritan final in a row and a third between 'Rock and Michael's in the last four years.
In Munster, 2018 was a great year for St Munchin's College as Ger Slattery's highly talented squad took the under-16 title back to Corbally for the first time since 1998 and the sixth time ever. With confidence high they will be strong again this year, but the real power would appear to lie with the traditional giants PBC, CBC and Rockwell.
The smart money is on Christians (the dominant force along with Crescent at this level in recent years) but word in the southern province is of a particularly strong Rockwell side. It is now 18 years since the Tipperary giant's last final appearance (in 2001, losing to CBC) and four years further back again for the last outright success (9-5 over Crescent).
As at Senior, High School Clonmel meet Bandon Grammar, with Crescent and Glenstal clashing in an all-Limerick first-round tie. The winner of each of those first-round matches will then clash in one of the four quarter-finals.
If Rockwell are to do it, they will have to go about it the hard way, especially with Pres the opposition in the last eight. The same goes for Munchin's, who open the defence of their hard-won crown against Christians. The last of the quarter-finals sees another all-Limerick clash between cross-city rivals Ardscoil Rís and Castletroy.
Take one from PBC, CBC and Rockwell to come out on top, but with Munchin's and Crescent next in that order.
In Connacht, Garbally - on the basis of the League - have to be strong favourites. Last year St Joseph's College Garbally and Marist College Athlone went unbeaten in their respective League pools before meeting in the final, which was taken comprehensively by Garbally (32-5).
The same trend followed through the Cup and with the same two teams meeting in the final, but with a different result. Garbally were hot favourites to complete another Senior/Junior double but Marist turned the tables to take title number seven at under-16 back to Retreat Road.
The schools have already clashed in the pre-Christmas league, where both impressed on the way to a second successive final. The outcome was the same, with Garbally emerging on a 27-10 scoreline.
The draw has pitched Garbally alongside CBS Roscommon, St Muiredach's and St Joseph's Galway (the Bish) in Pool 1. Garbally should come through comfortably, with CBS most likely to qualify for a final-four place and yet a 34-32 win for St Muriredach's in the round robin suggests the possibility of an upset.
Meanwhile in Pool 2, the Jes and Marist should come through despite the presence of both Sligo schools, with Summerhill the stronger of the two this year. The outcome between Marist and Jes will be vital, as the winner will avoid Garbally in the semi. For all that, it's difficult to look beyond a Garbally League/Cup double for 2019.
In Ulster, much like the Senior Cup, the Medallion Shield (contested continuously since its inception in 1910) is run on the rolling draw system, with the eight seeded teams for 2019 joining in Round 4 (to be played this year on Saturday Feruary 2).
The inaugural final well over a century ago was taken by Methody, who beat great Belfast rivals (RBAI) in the final. Such was the domination of the Belfast giants that it wasn't until 1917 before any school other than Methody and Inst (in this case Royal School Dungannon) broke the stranglehold.
As in Cork, where PBC and CBC stand tied on 29 titles apiece at Senior, so is it at Medallion level in Ulster, with Methody and Inst locked on 35 outright wins each.
Ballymena Academy set out as defending champions and are one of the eight marked to come on board at Round 4 along with Ballyclare High School, Campbell, Coleraine Grammar, Methody, RBAI, Sullivan Upper and Wallace High.
The Shield has had 15 different winners to date, with Royal School Armagh the most recent 'new' name inscribed just two years ago in 2017. Wallace have still to claim a first outright success (one shared) and have been knocking on the door by way of five final appearances in this decade alone, so maybe this could be their year. However, all logic suggests another Belfast-bound title.
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