Schools Rugby: Methodist College remain the team to beat in the Ulster Schools Cup

The three-time defending champions are likely to be tested by Wallace High Lisburn

It might only take a glance at the photograph of last year’s Ulster Schools Cup champions to remind the current Methodist College Belfast collective of their historic task at hand.

The image of ecstatic young men at Ravenhill, each holding up three fingers, is a gesture few have a chance to better. For the class of 2015, holding an extra digit aloft to signify four consecutive titles would greet a triumph that has eluded every Methody alumnus since the competition’s birth.

The one-school dominance that has thrived in Ulster since 2012, is likely to be tested by Wallace High Lisburn. An unbeaten season has included victory over Methody at Pirrie Park, with this term earmarked for improving upon last year’s semi-final loss. A confident approach can be assured toward the latter end of proceedings but as with every other attempt to upset the holders, much depends on mental affairs.

The sense of belonging at Ravenhill on St Patrick’s Day is Methody’s alone. How they do it has been a matter of experience lately. Being hardened to the case of provincial naysaying helps, too. While every school has their own view of success, if each could band together to deaden Nick Wells’ managerial grip on the Schools’ Cup, the decision would be unanimously welcomed.

He insists that his team have benefitted from the attitude and performances of previous years, as they prepare for a fourth straight title.

“These boys realise this is what it’s all about. It’s why we train the way we do. It’s why we target the tours the way we do. They saw the wonderful atmosphere at the newly opened Ravenhill last year against Sullivan and they want a taste of it.”

Preparations this month have taken a backward step however as sickness has seen a crisis of sorts in the champions’ camp. As a result, several senior figures have had to be stood down for regular fixtures.

Previous to the lashings of illness, Wells’ side outlasted their provincial counterparts at the Clongowes Wood Schools’ Rugby Festival in October. The Co Kildare invitational was largely disappointing for those of a northern persuasion, given their comeuppance by Leinster’s likely lads and Colegy College Wales.

Methody have since gone on to impress on their pre-tournament tour of Portugal, convincingly beating the Portuguese u-19’s 25-7. As with the past three years, there are few weaknesses that opposition can point to and say with surety that the Malone Road outfit will crack in time. Wells is not slow in expressing his thoughts on perceived or actual shortcomings.

“I know some people say you lose the ambition and drive for competition but I look at it the other way – we have all the experience in our favour and we are the cup specialists.”

Aside from the peerless form of Wallace, RBAI have lost only two matches from thirteen, with both losses against strong opposition. When the pair met in December, supporters were left to reflect upon a highly entertaining 17-17 draw and an early preview of the action awaiting them in February, when the sides enter in round three.

Last year’s runners-up Sullivan Upper have had a consistent year to date but have been unable to match Belfast’s elite too often. Another final is perhaps an unattainable target.

Should the Hollywood side be forced to play a less prominent role, Wallace will seek to fill the void. A bulk of provincial representatives add their flair to a well-balanced and developed squad, with outside centre Andrew Cardosi arguably the best in his position across Ulster. Their attacking displays are capable of winning games inside a half. Royal School Armagh attested to that in November when they conceded five tries without registering a solitary point.

Priority and pride dictates that captain Sam Moore will remind his team they have a duty to overturn Methody’s semi-final victory 10 months ago. Since then much has changed in determining who might be rightly considered favourite to win a return game; but little can be expected to prevent another ferocious cup battle between now and March 17th.

Among the opening round winners, Limavady Grammar prevailed in a closely fought contest with Wellington College while Banbridge Academy put on an entertaining show for home supporters with a 45-point win over Antrim Grammar.

This article was published by The Irish Times on Wednesday 21st January 2015

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