Rugby: Schools start out on long road to Ravenhill
The fight to wrestle the Northern Bank Ulster Schools' Cup from holders RBAI will kick off on Saturday with the first round group stage.
Three schools, Strabane Grammar and Antrim Grammar - who meet in the opening match - and Belfast side Wellington College will do battle on a round-robin basis over the next three weekends, with the table-toppers progressing to January's second round.
Both Antrim and Strabane exited the prestigious competition - the second oldest in world rugby - at this stage last year, when Cambridge House, Ballymena progressed to the next stage.
However, Antrim have been buoyed by an encouraging start to their season, including wins over Dalraida School and a strong 2nd XV from RS Armagh, following on from a successful summer tour to South Africa.
Coached by Bryan Baguley and captained by prop Andrew Chestnutt, they are likely to look to No 8 Chris McGregor for the inspiration that can propel them into the second round for the first time.
Fly-half Michael Smith summed up their pre-tournament excitement by saying: " We are really looking forward to the Cup now after our South African tour and a decent start to our season."
Strabane's young outfit, meanwhile, have struggled so far this term but have the players who can cause problems for any team.
Scrum-half Philip Kane and centre Robert Spratt should be key men for David Hampton's side.
The school's first success at 1st XV level came via a Schools' Trophy win back in 2005, and they do not have to look far back for sporting inspiration, as Ireland World Cup cricketers Boyd Rankin and William Porterfield are both ex-pupils.
The beginning of the Schools' Cup is met with frenzied anticipation each season, and this year will be no different as all roads lead to the Ravenhill final.
In all, 32 teams will attempt to emulate last season's winners, RBAI, who defeated Wallace HS 15-0 in the St. Patrick's Day showpiece.
Once again, a seeding system is adopted for the competition, with levels of entry determined by early season results.
Eleven teams will join the Round 1 victors in the second round on January 12, with the eight top seeds entering the fray for the fourth round on February 9.