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Friends' exit on sad day for Cup

No winners in sorry saga as ski trip means youngsters' dream shattered and BRA get walkover into semis

By Jonathan Bradley

In the long and storied history of rugby's second oldest competition, it's unlikely the Danske Bank Schools' Cup has ever seen a week like this.

After an extraordinary sequence of events, at 10pm last night there was finally clarity - Belfast Royal Academy were in the semi-final draw and Friends' School Lisburn's run in the competition was over with 17 of their squad in Austria on a ski trip and unable to play in the last eight tie supposed to take place this morning.

Quite how we got there, and what could or should have been done to avoid it, remained very much up for debate.

The story began all the way back in the autumn of 2015, when a series of emails between Friends' and the Ulster Schools' Committee flagged the potential for a scheduling clash should the school book a planned half-term break, which they subsequently did.

The problem was highlighted again when staff at the school noted on their application form that they were unavailable to play the weekend of February 18 due to the ski holiday.

With no word back to the contrary, they began the competition in the second round, embarking on an unlikely run to the quarter-finals.

After overcoming Grosvenor in the last 16 - and just 48 hours after the parent of one player passed away in tragically sudden circumstances - the Committee refused to move the resulting quarter-final leading to an appeal hearing on Tuesday night.

Players and their coach had already set off for Austria by then, reportedly confident that the appeal would find in their favour.

To their dismay, the three-man panel backed the Committee, leaving the squad to process that their journey in the competition was likely over.

With news of the decision appearing in Thursday's Belfast Telegraph, and a campaign then taking off on social media, many hoped for a change of heart, while the possibility of flying players home, at a cost believed to be in the thousands of pounds, was discussed then dismissed as infeasible.

With the Ulster Branch holding firm through the week, no amicable resolution seemed likely with Friends' duty of care to younger rugby players in the school meaning they could never fill the holes left in their squad.

Yesterday afternoon, they informed the Committee, the referee, and BRA that they could not field a team, but stopped short of withdrawing from the competition, saying on Twitter that they awaited the "decision to reschedule or award to BRA".

A 9pm deadline was set for an official withdrawal, with it emerging one hour later that it had not been forthcoming.

And so, less than 13 hours before kick-off, a conclusion was belatedly reached, even if controversy is sure to linger in what has been a sad episode for a competition that takes such prominence in the landscape of the sport here.

If at times Friends' journey through the tournament seemed cinematic, so too it seemed that people thought the story needed a villain.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Committee's decision - and there are numbers in each camp despite Friends' requesting just a 48 hour delay - this is no time to hurl abuse at the volunteers whose time is so necessary to the operation of all levels of rugby in this province.

Similarly, throughout the entire controversy, BRA had to simply sit and wait.

By all accounts, the north Belfast school that produced Ulster heroes both past and present in the shape of Jack Kyle and Iain Henderson, were willing to back whatever decision was reached at the appeal hearing, unable to play earlier only because they would then be missing key men themselves.

They too have been in limbo all week, their preparation for what is now a massive semi-final not helped by there being no opportunity to arrange a game this weekend.

While their players will get at least one more shot in a little over a week, the disruption is perhaps best exemplified by the pupil who cut short his own family holiday to play in the game, only to return and find it cancelled.

Ultimately, though, most sympathy must go to the 23 Friends' students who were denied their chance at making history for the school.

Not players, nor men, but boys who missed out on what for many would be the most important game of their lives.

Ulster hero and Friends' alumni Stephen Ferris said the pupils at his old school will feel today like they have been denied their Heineken Cup final and he's undoubtedly correct.

For those in their final months at the school, who will now never get to pull on the jersey again, it must feel like nothing less than a sporting tragedy.

Belfast Telegraph

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