Unbeaten holders the hottest of favourites

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

METHODIST College Belfast, the defending champions of the Northern Bank Ulster Schools’ Cup, will go into this season’s tournament as one of the hottest favourities in years.

The south Belfast school, who have been Ulster champions a record 31 times – two ahead of their fierce rivals, Royal Belfast Academical Institution – will enter their campaign unbeaten this season, having racked up a number of thumping victories against their Ulster opponents as well as some notable scalps from the south, including Blackrock College and Christian Brothers Cork. They also defeated Italy Schools on a tour in December.

Captained by Irish Schools hooker Niall Annett, whose versatility and footballing skills normally see him play at number eight for his school side, Methody are blessed with a robust, ball-winning pack and an incisive backline with outhalf Patrick Jackson pulling the strings and the impressive midfield of Patrick Robinson and Michael Allen causing most of the damage. Coaches Nick Wells and Colin Martin however, will be well aware that pre-tournament form counts for nothing unless the side deliver under the pressure-cooker conditions of the cup.

No side has successfully retained the Ulster Schools’ Cup since the vintage Methody side of 1991 that boasted future Ulster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions lock Jeremy Davidson among their number, as well as Irish Schools players Ritchie Hunter, a future centre with Northampton, Roger Sloan and captain Allen Martin.

As one of the eight top seeds, Methody will wait until February 7th to begin the defence of their title, when they enter the fourth round along with the other big guns. Of them, Coleraine Academical Institution, Wallace High and Ballymena look best equipped to give Methody a run for their money.

Meanwhile, the right to join the seeded teams will be fought over in the third round, which gets under way on Saturday with the eye-catching tie being the clash between Royal School Armagh and Sullivan Upper. Armagh were recently well beaten by Methody but will be hard to overcome on their own ground even though the Holywood side are a tough, if inexperienced unit. Elsewhere, Cambridge House will look to repeat their friendly triumph Limavady Grammar School when the two sides meet in Ballymena.

Cambridge will look to key players Stephen Mulholland and Roger McBurney but Limavady, with players like Roger Bell, Shane Toner and Johnny O’Hara, can spring a surprise result.

Royal School Dungannon will be favourites to edge out Portora Royal School while Dalriada School, now coached by former Ulster number eight Tony McWhirter, face a tough task at Foyle and Londonderry College.

Round-robin first-round qualifiers Wellington College will be looking for another big scalp against five-time champions Bangor Grammar while Grosvenor Grammar face Ballyclare High at Castlereagh. Omagh Academy should make home advantage count against Banbridge Academy.