With week 3 of the Six Nations commencing tonight, the attention of the majority of the home nations is on how their national team will perform. However, despite Ireland’s very bright start to the tournament, for many schoolboys in Northern Ireland, the international teams clash with England will be playing second fiddle this weekend. For them, something more important is at hand and their attention will be firmly focused on their personal game preparation ahead of the quarter finals of the Ulster Schools Cup. Running annually since 1876, the Schools Cup is the second oldest rugby competition in the world (only outdone by the United Hospitals Challenge Cup, running in since 1874) and it is the Holy Grail of schoolboy sport in the province. A competition this old, carries with it much prestige and having been fortunate enough to represent my school in it during each of my final 3 years, it is the most intense and enjoyable rugby I have ever played. At this time of the year, rugby fever comes to all Northern Irish schools involved and many of those who are otherwise indifferent to rugby, can be seen out supporting in their school colours! Unfortunately, my old school Belfast Royal Academy are no longer featuring this year after losing their third round fixture away to Rainey Endowed. However, it should ensure that this report is not as laced with bias as it otherwise may have been!
The competition is taken very seriously by all squads involved; especially with the reformatting of the system in the 2003/4 season, which allowed teams who were unlikely to win the main competition, access to subsidiary shield and bowl competitions if they are knocked out in the early stages. This increase in opportunities to challenge for silverware, has undoubtedly freshened interest from the traditionally less successful schools. Results in the Cup are a reflection on the school as a whole and doing well can help attract the most talented young sportsmen and women from primary schools across the country. Preparation and training is becoming more and more intense, to the extent that in my last year at school, pitch sessions would take place on Mondays and Wednesdays after school, strength and conditioning sessions on Tuesday and Thursday and a team run to fine tune on Fridays. As there is no league system, the whole season is geared towards cup rugby and ‘friendly’ matches take place every Saturday for around 4-5 months pre-tournament.
There is intense rivalry across the country, but it is particularly strong between the Belfast schools. Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) and Methodist College are the two most prolific winners of the trophy and exchanges between the two are always fiercely contested. Alongside them Campbell College Belfast have risen in prominence in recent years and my old school B.R.A challenge sporadically. Elsewhere in the country there are consistently strong sides produced by Royal School Armagh, Ballymena Academy and in more recent times Ballyclare High School. Sullivan Upper from Holywood (just outside Belfast) have started to build a strong rugby culture and are indeed one of the favourites for the spoils this season.
Last year the famous Cup was won by Methodist College (their 34th outright win) who defeated RBAI 20-5 in the final, held at Ravenhill-the home of Ulster Rugby. This marked the end of an era, as it was the last time the trophy would be presented in the old promenade stand, as work shortly commenced on the extensive redevelopment of the ground. The revamp will be close to conclusion by this year’s final on St Patricks day and therefore it will be the first at a fully enclosed Ravenhill. The quarter final line up is strong and all four of the games are set to be very competitive and physical encounters, with the incentive of Ravenhill semi-finals and consequently a proud school outing on offer for the respective winners.
Saturday’s Fixtures are as follows:
RBAI vs Methodist College-
This remake of last year’s final will undoubtedly be a tight and nervy affair between the fiercest of rivals. Home advantage at Osbourne Park will be much welcomed by the RBAI side who will be well drilled and committed, but it is hard to look past Methody. They have performed consistently all year and have plenty of experience to call on with several players remaining from the cup winning side last season. Strong in the forwards and pacey in the backs, I believe they will be able to squeeze a narrow victory despite what is likely to be a very hostile and sizeable crowd packed in to see the pick of the quarter-final ties.
Prediction = Methody win
Down High School vs Sullivan Upper-
Although a longish away trip will not be ideal for Sullivan, they will fancy their chances of putting away the Down High School team. Down are in largely unchartered territory and have done well to get to this stage with an impressive victory away against Rainey Endowed in Magherafelt (never an easy place to come away with a result), but this is likely to be a step too far. Sullivan have a talented and dynamic side consisting largely of players in their final year and will be determined to go further than their quarter final exit last season. Down will not go down without a fight, but the multiple attacking options possessed by the Holywood visitors is likely to be enough to eventually break them down and ensure a comfortable victory.
Prediction = Sullivan win
Coleraine Academical Institution vs Ballyclare High School-
This is likely to be a closely fought affair. Ballyclare, prolific semi-finalists in recent times will not bow out meekly and this was highlighted by their dramatic, injury time converted try to defeat Ballymena in the 4th Round. However, Coleraine have been dark horses this season and produced a dramatic victory themselves, with a shock home win against much fancied Sullivan in a friendly around a month ago. Having myself been involved in a quarter final defeat at Coleraine, they are certainly a team that raises their game at cup time. I believe they will emerge victorious after what will be a tough fixture against a gritty Ballyclare side this weekend, and seal a place in their 2nd semi-final in 4 years.
Prediction = Coleraine Inst win
Campbell College Belfast vs Wallace High School
Similarly, this will be a close one. Wallace claimed the spoils in the friendly match between these two earlier in the season, but the Belfast side are much improved since then. Fears at the start of the season of this being a disappointing Campbell side appear to have subsided. After a slow start, they have accumulated some impressive wins, not least their last round triumph over the ever dangerous Royal School Armagh. Wallace also had an excellent result in the 4th round, travelling to and beating a talented and free scoring Belfast High side and will arrive at Campbell full of confidence. I feel home advantage may be crucial in what promises to be a very physical affair and fancy Campbell to progress.
Prediction = Campbell College win.
Kick off times are 11am with the exception of Down High vs Sullivan which will commence at 10:30 am. If you wish to keep up to date with proceedings or to check out the results, live updates will be available via twitter @schoolsrugbyni or @DBSchoolsCup.