Ballyclare are ready for huge task
They have a truly mountainous challenge awaiting tomorrow morning, but Ballyclare High School are heading to holders Royal Belfast Academical Insititution confident in their ability to take on the cup favourites.
The Co Antrim school will head to Osborne Park in a positive frame of mind for this fourth round meeting in the Danske Bank Ulster Schools' Cup against mighty opponents who are opening their defence of the title.
Indeed, a third successive St Patrick's Day triumph is very much part of Inst's agenda as their powerful squad gets things going tomorrow.
Yes, it looks like a fairly formidable task for Ballyclare, but they are ready for it.
"It's a cliché but you play the match not the occasion," says Ballyclare director of rugby Mike Orchin-McKeever.
"It's going to be a hard task, and we all accept that, but I suppose the pressure and expectation is really on RBAI to perform.
"With us, it's a case of just enjoying the underdog title and going out and playing," he added.
The game - which will see the winner safely into the quarter-final draw - has any amount of sub-plots to it, none more so than the fact that Orchin-McKeever is a former Inst pupil and was in their Schools' Cup winning side back in 2003.
And then there is Inst's head coach Dan Soper. The Kiwi took Ballyclare all the way to the 2012 final - the school's first appearance at the St Patrick's Day showpiece since winning the trophy for the, so far, only time in 1973 when they actually beat Belfast Inst - before departing to take the top job at the high achieving city school the following year.
"Dan and I are pals," says Orchin-McKeever who teaches at the Co Antrim school and also coaches at Ballyclare Rugby Cub.
"We spoke recently and his words were, 'it had to happen at some time' though I think he will definitely prefer having it at RBAI than having to come here."
And not forgetting Ulster prop, and former Ballyclare pupil, Ricky Lutton who is on the High School's coaching ticket and has done tremendous work with the forwards, an area of strength in the overall game-plan they will take to Osborne Park.
"The boys will go (to Inst) with confidence having had a cup win under their belts," Orchin-McKeever maintains.
The third round saw Ballyclare travel to beat Lurgan College 35-10 and the Co Antrim side ran in some late scores to fully secure the result.
That ring-rustiness will be gone now as they prepare to face a mighty Inst side, who beat them well earlier in the season in a friendly.
Indeed, Orchin-McKeever's coaching ticket of Lutton, Gary Clotworthy and Gareth Lenaghan have left no stone-unturned in their preparation for this clash and have even brought in former skipper Gary Bartley, now with Ballyclare Rugby Club, to talk to the squad about his experiences when the school made it to the final five years ago.
The school's squad is an experienced outfit - out-half Adam Clarke is the only fifth former in the starting line-up - and their form going into the game has been decent with only four defeats this season and much rotation having been in operation up until Halloween.
Another key man for Ballyclare is blindside flanker Aaron Playfair while Josh Young and James Nelson are emerging as quality operators at second row and number eight respectively.
Though the school are renowned for their forward play, there are quality backs on board as well with experienced skipper Jake McVicker at scrum-half and in his third year of involvement, while centre Owen Kirk is a dangerous finisher who bagged a hat-trick of tries at Lurgan.
The game is certainly thriving at the High School as they are putting out three senior teams with Orchin-McKeever having 52 boys representing the school at this level.
Below that there are two sides at Medallion, Under-14 and Under-13 levels while three teams are turning out at Under-12.
"We are achieving over what the expectation would be for our school," states Orchin-McKeever.
"And it's not just focused on 1st XV rugby. My role as director of rugby is to promote the game right through (the age groups).
"My aim is to create a conveyor belt of boys coming through and learning about the game before leaving as more accomplished players."
They know Inst are a huge ask, but Ballyclare are ready to show their worth.