BRA set to deliver final blow
In terms of spirit and character the two right teams, Ballymena Academy and Belfast Royal Academy, have qualified for the final of the Northern Bank Schools' Cup at Ravenhill tomorrow afternoon (3 pm).
D-day: Rival captains Conor Spence (BRA) and George Dennison (Ballymena Academy) square up
Methodist College were the favourites from the start of the season and, on their day, would still probably defeat either of the contestants by ten points but they failed to live up to expectation against a gallant Ballymena and lost 11-10.
That was the correct result as the Braid team fought back gallantly to record a warranted victory whereas the Belfast side were a big disappointment.
That is the beauty and unpredictable nature of the Schools' Cup.
Ballymena started their campaign with a 22-3 win over Limavady Grammar but then needed a replay to overcome Friends'. The Lisburn team had a strong pack but it was still a surprise that Ballymena needed to go to injury time for a try to eliminate them 11-10 after the 11-11 draw at Eaton Park. They then faced Methody in the semi-final and stuck to their game plan before needing another injury time try to win 11-10.
Ballymena must now be full of confidence after that victory. They have a young and mobile pack and a formidable half-back partnership of Pumulo Banda and Callum Patterson.
Patterson’s accurate kicking caused havoc in the Methody defence and his strong running set up many moves. Charlie Simpson, the Irish Schools' full back, is robust in defence and can create openings.
Their real strength is in the back row and this is a problem that the Belfast team will have to overcome. Peter Wallace, George Dennison and Timothy Patton have proved their worth on so many occasions.
Belfast Royal Academy started with a 3-3 draw against RBAI and, in the replay, played the better rugby to emerge 18-16 victors at Osborne Park. They then eliminated Dalriada 8-0.
Then in the semi-final, after much late pressure, the strong Wallace High defence eventually gave way for a David Cartmill try to put Academy into the final, 16-12.
Cartmill, a strong running centre, also showed his capabilities against Inst and his accurate kicking has been a big asset. Academy's three-quarters will use the whole pitch and this will create problems.
Their half-back partnership of scrum-half Conor Spence and Stuart Olding should provide an adequate service.
The Belfast side, a fit squad with few weaknesses, will be clinical in the line-outs with forwards Callum Leckey and Niall O'Neill evident but there should be little between the teams in the set-pieces. They do have an excellent No.8 in Ian Henderson who carries the ball well.
It will be a different and refreshing final as neither Methody, Inst nor Campbell will be there for the first time since 1994 when Regent House defeated Wallace High 8-3.
Each team has had eight final appearances with BRA having one success in 1997 although they did share the title three times while Ballymena have won twice, in 1972 and 1981.
Both will be optimistic with a 'never say die' attitude and the result could depend on which team settles quicker. BRA may be the better balanced and, if they can avoid the Ballymena back row, they could have the edge in what should be a closely contested game.
Ballymena Academy: Simpson, McClelland, Delpy, Storey, Morrison, Patterson, Banda, McNabney, Andrew, Galloway, Rea, Whann, Patton, Dennison, Wallace Replacements: Hargy, Gregg, Goodrich, Dick, Stirling, Fleming, McBride.
Belfast Royal Academy: Buchanan, Devlin, Cartmill, Glover, Robinson, Olding, Spence, Martin, Sinclair, McCallum, O'Neill, Leckey, Vincent, Clarke, Henderson. Replacements: McCormick, Thompson, Simpson, Nicholl, Jamison, McClements, Redmond
Referee: D Wilkinson