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Friends' weighing up options after appeal to delay tie rejected

By Jonathan Bradley

Saturday's Danske Bank Schools' Cup quarter-finals have become engulfed in controversy with the news that Friends' have lodged and lost an appeal to have their last-eight tie with Belfast Royal Academy postponed until next week.

With 17 of the school's squad, as well as their coach, not scheduled to return from a half-term ski trip to Austria until Saturday evening, the Lisburn outfit hoped the Schools' Committee would allow their game to be played on Monday or Tuesday.

But, wary of setting a precedent, competition organisers have refused the request, saying that the game will be played on Saturday or considered a forfeit with or without the first-team players.

With a place in a Kingspan Stadium semi-final at stake for the winners, the pupils are understood to be devastated by the ruling with the school saying yesterday they were "weighing up all our options," which could even include the possibility of flying a number of players home early from the slopes of Ehrwald.

While the issue of a potential clash was flagged before the trip was booked - fixtures tend to follow the same scheduling year on year, working back from the televised St Patrick's Day final, and it is understood emails were exchanged to this effect - the school would perhaps not have expected to make it this far in the competition ahead of the first-round draw.

However, having already accounted for Antrim Grammar, Coleraine and Grosvenor this season, they have been enjoying something of a refreshing renaissance.

Given the heavy hitters who once again make up the majority of the last eight, there is a very different approach to the game at Friends', who still do not employ a Director of Rugby or undertake a gym programme, and train just twice a week.

The underdog story is now just one game away from the reward of a showpiece semi-final at the home of Ulster Rugby, and the approach has also seen the school's Medallion side advance to their own semi-final next weekend.

But the once promising Schools' Cup campaign has been thrown into disarray by the ruling, and what has already been an emotional run - one player's father and a big supporter of the team passed away on the eve of the last round - could be about to come to an abrupt end.

While the Schools' Committee are said to sympathise with the pupils in question, with 38 competing schools and 12 competitions to organise, it was thought that allowing a postponement for a recreational activity, even with the potential awkwardness of a quarter-final forfeit, would result in a flurry of similar requests being made in the coming years.

There were also concerns that, with the semi-finals inked in for Kingspan on February 27-28, there would be the potential for fixture chaos in the unlikely event that a replay would be required.

And it was a stance backed by an appeal committee assembled by the Ulster Branch.

A three-man panel, consisting of branch members with a legal background, convened at Kingspan Stadium on Tuesday evening, hearing submissions from both representatives of Friends' School and the Schools' Committee before siding with the latter.

It is understood their findings said that given that the school were aware of the potential for a quarter-final clash when the trip was booked, the committee were fully entitled to enforce their decision.

While there is no written definition of the "very exceptional circumstances" that would have allowed a postponement, it is understood the rule is in place in case of a death in a school and, therefore, a ski trip does not qualify.

At present, Friends' have said that, while they are disappointed with the outcome of the appeal process, the game is still very much considered on this weekend.

Unless something changes in regards to scheduling or player availability, however, safety concerns over a lack of suitably experienced front-row starters and replacements would leave the school, which is only 940-strong in terms of numbers, unable to field a side.

While penalties for such an act include expulsion from the competition the following season, it is not thought such a punishment would be enforced on this occasion.

One possibility believed to be examined yesterday was trying to get the pupils in question back in time for the early morning kick-off.

The school team have been in a somewhat similar situation in recent years - they flew a pupil home from a family holiday for a crucial game - only to see the contest called off due to bad frost.

Those in their final year at the school are thought to be especially willing to cut short the break in order to avoid their rugby career at this level ending with a forfeit.

However, with the trip already having cost parents, some of whom have more than one child on the half-term break, a four figure sum, the price of such an act could be prohibitive, while the preparation would be far from ideal compared to opponents who have been able to train throughout the week.

Timeline

Autumn 2015: Friends' School exchange emails with Schools' Committee regarding 2017 fixtures to check potential clash and are informed that the quarter-finals are set to be held on the weekend in question.

December 2015: Friends' senior school ski trip to Austria is booked

February 2016: Fixtures for 2017 are confirmed

Autumn 2016: Friends' submit entry to 2017 competition with note that they will not be able to fulfil a fixture on February 18. No response is issued from Schools' Committee

February 4, 2017: Friends' beat Grosvenor 30-0 to set up quarter-final clash with B.R.A

February 14, 2017: Friends' appeal to have game postponed is rejected

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