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Holders Inst ready for Academy's drive in re-run of last year's semi

By Michael Sadlier

If this even adds up to part of its obvious potential then today's Danske Bank Ulster Schools' Cup semi-final between holders Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Ballymena Academy (2.30pm) should be quite an occasion at the Kingspan Stadium.

After all, the two met in last year's semi-final when Inst got the better of the highly rated Ballymena Academy side and then went on to lift the cup for a second time in succession after taking Campbell College's scalp on St Patrick's Day.

Twelve months on and Inst are quietly hoping to ultimately go on and make it three titles in a row, and, this time around, Dan Soper's squad have already accounted for Campbell by showing all their pedigree to win a pulsating quarter-final at Fox's Field.

That 10-3 triumph will have boosted the tournament favourite's belief that they can dig out results in tight situations and that they have lost none of their burning desire to win.

Inst, though, also know they can raise their game a good few notches and will have to do so to halt what should be a robust challenge from the Academy.

Soper's charges are certainly under no illusions that they will need to be more composed and clinical than in their edgy quarter-final.

Ballymena Academy also won an away quarter-final when they just about shaded matters 21-17 at Wallace High School and come into today's clash having had to also dig deep to win their opening game at Dalriada.

The Academy will definitely be up for this one though and - with most of last year's squad still around - there is no need for extra motivation to go after Inst's scalp.

Indeed, not only did the Academy lose out to Inst at the same stage last year, but there is also some history between the schools as a number of today's side were on the losing team to Inst in 2014's tightly fought Medallion Shield final.

They badly want to make it all the way to a Schools' Cup final in what will be the last chance a sizeable number of the squad will have to reach one, never mind the sense of satisfaction they would draw from overcoming the Belfast city centre school to reach the shoot-out for silverware.

"We're certainly going into it feeling confident," said Academy head coach John Andrews.

"The boys know it's a big task as Inst have set the benchmark for the last two years.

"We're in a good place though and we know that the team that beats Inst will be favourites to go on to win the cup.

"We're really looking forward to it as this is the boys' last shot at them," he added.

Skipper Alexander Clarke -son of Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke - along with Azur Allison, Angus Kernohan, Stewart Moore and Bruce Houston are all experienced players and more than capable of producing to throw Inst off course.

"They've got quality right across the park and it's a very tough draw but, look, we're in the last four and you expect to have very tough games at this stage," Inst head coach Soper readily admitted.

"As such, it's no surprise that we're facing a tough game."

Inst, though, certainly have the personnel to get through to have a shot at their third straight cup.

Central to their cause will be the experienced half-back partnership of Rhys O'Donnell and Michael Lowry whose game management is so good.

Up front, another huge game will be required from impressive prop Callum Reid and flanker Charlie Cloke and if they can get on top, then Lowry will be able to release the power and pace of James Hume and Joe Finnegan.

"We weren't on top of our game at Campbell," said Soper, "but we've prepared a lot better for this.

"The semi last year was close but we'll be well prepared," he added.

As for the prospect of staying in the race for the three-in-a-row, Soper shrugs that one off.

"It hasn't been mentioned, it's all just been about this game."

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