Ballymena Academy begin their quest for Danske Bank Schools’ Cup glory this weekend when they host Wallace High School.
The draw continues the Academy’s trend in recent years of drawing one of their fellow seeded teams in their opeming hurdle of the competition.
The game, which will take place at the Galgorm Road venue on February 6th, promises to be a tight encounter between two well-matched teams. Indeed this will be the third time that the teams have locked horns this season. Ballymena Academy won 10 – 3 early in September and Wallace High were victorious three weeks ago with a 19 – 10 win in Lisburn.
Current form would suggest that Wallace High may go into the game as slight favorites with the Lisburn team also recording a recent victory over R.B.A.I., another of this year’s contenders. A well-balanced all-round side, they have several key individuals particularly Ulster Schools’ back Ben Finlay and captain Jonathan Stewart, the Ulster and Irish Schools’ scrum half. The fixture should attract a large crowd and is already being touted as the ‘tie of the round’ in many circles.
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 under-age teams, U19 and U18 Schools’, which compete against the other Irish provinces at representative level. During the month of September, a significant number of the Ballymena Academy squad were involved with these representative squads.
Ballymena Academy captain, Marcus Rea, also had the honour of being seleceted as captain of the Ulster Under 19 team. Back-rower Marcus is a skilful and strong ball-carrier and sets an outstanding example with his leadership on and off the field. He was joined in that squad by fellow forwards Jonathan McKeown and Josh Bill. Jonathan is a dynamic ball-carrier and an effective line-out forward while Josh is a strong tight-head prop who enjoys the ball in hand. Michael Stronge, a scrum half with an accurate passing and kicking game, completed the quartet of players in the Under 19 squad.
Another three players represented Ulster Schools’ at Under 18 level. Centre Angus Kernohan and No. 8 Azur Allison both came off the bench in the Interpro series while Alexander Clarke was the starting hooker throughout the campaign. A strong scrummager and accurate thrower, Alexander has been called up to the Irish Schools’ training squad and he has been joined in that squad by full-back Mark Thompson.
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. “Players like David Forsythe, Matthew Moody, Chris McLeister, Conor Cosgrove and Alan Small have had to step up to leadership roles during the early part of the season and they have set high standards with their performances.
“As a result, the younger players in the squad, such as Oisin Jordan, Bruce Houston and James McClean, have thrived and this has created an enjoyable and competitive environment. We have also welcomed back Joel Gocher, Ryan McKee, Andrew Hogg and Conor Gallagher from long-term injuries which has given us many options with selection.”
Wallace’s 19-10 victory three weeks ago has set up a mouthwatering return match this Saturday.
The coaching team of John Andrews and Gavin Murray, assisted by Aaron Moore and Ryan Keating, have been pleased with many aspects of their team’s performance this season but know that their players will have to raise their levels further in the cup environment.
Speaking about the fixture three weeks ago, Andrews was honest about his team’s performance. “We were disappointing in that game and made too many mistakes. Against a well-organised and talented team like Wallace, we needed to be more accurate”. On the draw itself, Andrews is delighted that the game will be played at the Galgorm Road venue. “The nature of the open draw can throw up tough fixtures like this and a home draw is a big bonus for any team”.
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 last season’s beaten finalists. “This is a fixture that our boys can’t wait to be involved in, particularly after the recent defeat. There is a buzz on the training pitch and around the school”.
A large crowd is expected to be in attendance for the 10.30 am kick off with the successful team moving into the Quarter Final draw which takes place immediately after the conclusion of the third round games.