Ballymena Academy embark on their Danske Bank Schools’ Cup campaign this Saturday, with the toughest of opening hurdles!
The Galgorm Road school will play host to the current holders, and cup favourites, Methodist College Belfast.
Furthermore, the current Methody team are seeking to make history by winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive trophy.
The 3rd round fixture is widely regarded as the ‘tie of the round’ with many pundits suggesting that this draw has thrown up a classic ‘favourites against dark-horse’ encounter.
Ballymena Academy’s 2010 Schools’ Cup win included a memorable semi-final victory against a Methodist College team captained by future Ulster and Ireland out-half Paddy Jackson.
It was hooker John Andrew, also now a part of the Senior Ulster squad, who scored the last-minute try at a packed Ravenhill to set up a final against a BRA team that included future internationals Iain Henderson and Stuart Olding.
Ballymena Academy started the season with some mixed results; a combination of injuries and players involved in Ulster age-group squads meant that the coaches were unable to select from a full panel of players until long after Halloween.
The return of key players, including Andrew Magrath and Josh McIlroy, have seen the local lads enjoy recent victories against RBAI, Campbell College and Sullivan Upper.
Ballymena Academy and Methody, two of the eight seeded teams, were not involved in the second round fixtures and played each other in a friendly at the Galgorm Road venue on that day.
Minutes after the final whistle of that game, which Methody won narrowly 22–20, both schools discovered that the lunchtime draw had set up a repeat of this closely contested game.
Both teams will have seen enough in this close friendly to feel that they are capable of a positive outcome at the weekend.
Coaches - John Andrews; Gavin Murray
Forwards: David Forsythe, Josh Bill, Matthew Moody, Mikey Glass, Alexander Clarke (*RDS; Irish Schools’ training squad), Ben Gaston, Marcus Rea (Ulster Schools’ U18), Josh McNabney, Azur Allison (RDS), Jonathan McKeown (Ulster Schools’ U18 (capt); Irish Schools’ training squad), Ryan Malcolm, Craig Holmes, Joe Thompson.
Backs: Michael Stronge (RDS), Connor Cosgrove, Andrew Magrath (Ulster Schools’ U19), Connor Agnew, Angus Kernohan (RDS), Josh McIlroy (capt) Ulster Schools’ U19 (capt), Tom Alexander, Dean Reynolds (RDS), Craig Hanna, Alan Small, Conor Gallagher (RDS).
* RDS – Regional Development Squad (players who are involved in training squads that feed into the Ulster representative squads).
Ballymena Academy will hope to draw on the interprovincial experience gained by several of their squad in the earlier part of the season.
There are two Ulster Schools’ squads, U19 and U18, competing against the other Irish provinces at representative level as well as a younger U17 development squad.
During the month of September, a significant number of the Ballymena squad were involved with these representative XVs.
Josh McIlroy, the Ballymena Academy captain, was also chosen as captain of the Ulster Schools’ U19 team and he was joined in this panel by the school’s vice-captain Andrew Magrath.
Although Josh played in the back row for the Ulster Schools’ team, his versatility has seen him move to the centre for his school, joining out-half Andrew in a potent backline.
Jonathan McKeown’s selection as captain of the Ulster Schools’ U18 team completed a unique double for the school.
In 2008/09, Ricky Andrew and Paul Pritchard captained the U19 and U18 teams respectively and the school is proud and honoured that, again, they have provided the captains for both teams.
Back row McKeown, who is currently involved with the Irish Schools’ squad, was joined in the U18 representative team by second row Marcus Rea who is enjoying an outstanding season.
Alexander Clarke was unfortunate that an early-season injury ended his chances of joining Jonathan and Marcus for the U18 interprovincial series. The young hooker has impressed since returning from injury and was included in the extended Irish Schools’ training camp at Halloween.
Conor Gallagher, Azur Allison, Tim Savoury, Michael Stronge and the currently injured Joel Gocher all played for the Ulster U17 team at the start of the season.
Whilst obviously proud of the school’s representation at interprovincial level, coach Gavin Murray was also quick to point out that high levels of performance have come from other players in the squad.
“The Year 14 boys like Joe Thompson, Josh McNabney, Dean Reynolds and Craig Hanna have set an excellent example with their commitment, work ethic and consistently high standard of performance.
“As a result, the younger players in the squad have stepped up and this has created an enjoyable and competitive environment”.
Methody’s narrow 22-20 victory a fortnight ago has set up a mouthwatering return match this Saturday.
The coaching team of John Andrews and Gavin Murray, assisted by Aaron Moore, were pleased with many aspects of their team’s performance but know that their players will have to raise their levels again in the cup environment.
Speaking about the fixture two weeks ago, Andrews saw enough to take great encouragement going into this weekend’s game.
“We played some outstanding rugby in parts, as we have throughout the season, and certainly tested Methody with our second half performance”.
On the draw itself, Andrews is delighted that the tie is to be played at the Galgorm Road venue. “We haven’t had much luck in recent years with the 3rd Round draw and, with so many strong teams involved, a home fixture is certainly a big positive”.
When asked about the reaction of his players to the draw, Andrews was quick to highlight their excitement at the prospect of locking horns with the cup holders.
“This is a fixture that our boys can’t wait to be involved in.
“There is a buzz on the training pitch and around the school,” said Andrews.
A large crowd is expected to be in attendance for the 10.30 am kick off and the successful team, particularly, will be keen not to miss the draw for the Quarter Finals which will take place immediately after the match in the Ballymena Academy Sixth Form Centre.