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McDonnell hopes gutsy Strabane can keep hitting heights

By Ronnie Ingram

Strabane Academy recorded their first Danske Bank Schools' Cup victory last month with a 12-0 win over Carrickfergus Grammar - and they're not planning to wait too long for a second.

They face an uphill task, however, against Lurgan College in a second-round tie tomorrow.

Last month's triumph really was something to celebrate as they have struggled to compete since the former Strabane Grammar won the Schools' Trophy 12 seasons ago.

They have been finding it difficult to persuade enough pupils to play rugby, but coach Niall McDonnell is optimistic.

"In the final year of the Grammar School in 2010-11, we were unable to enter a team in the Cup but the next season as Strabane Academy I approached Larne Grammar Head John Wilson to see if we could participate in the 2nd XV Cup and he kindly put the suggestion forward," said McDonnell, an Irish international cricketer.

"We were allowed but unfortunately the next year we were playing in the 3rd XV Cup."

McDonnell, who worked in Liverpool for nine years and then Kenya before returning to his place of birth as Head of PE, has put in a tremendous amount of work and that has started to pay some dividends with the Medallion side reaching the Trophy final two seasons ago.

The situation has improved over the past three seasons and Strabane are now back in the main competition.

"We were eliminated by Antrim Grammar in 2014-15 and Carrickfergus Grammar last year, but thankfully we gained revenge on them in December," said McDonnell.

"Our problem is that we are a small school with maybe 230 boys so when you divide that by seven years and then assume only a third are interested in rugby then we have problems.

"Our present position is that we have a playing squad of 20 so we obviously don't have strength in depth. At the same time our players are all really committed, although we are dependent on a few key ones."

Strabane have only three Upper Sixth players in their line-up - captain Oran O'Neill, Ryan McKittrick and Alex Hume - while eight of the squad are still in their fifth year.

Lurgan College are also coached by an international cricketer, Kyle McCallan, but have a much better record having won eight of their last 15 games, including convincing successes against Banbridge Academy (34-0) and Carrickfergus Grammar (52-0).

They have had their share of injuries but are strong up front, as their try record proves. No.8 Reuben McCreery has nine to his credit, blind-side flanker Victor McKenzie six and hooker Lewis Lawson five.

On paper, Lurgan look far too strong but under McDonnell Strabane will fight to the end.

Friends' are another team with a growing injury list but they should nonetheless be too strong for Antrim Grammar.

Their pack, with hooker Henry Tolerton and second row forward Connor Hall creating good ball, has given speedy backs like Ben McCaughey and Bradley Mulholland plenty of chances.

This has resulted in some encouraging victories over Grosvenor Grammar, Rainey Endowed and Bangor Grammar.

Fixtures: Belfast High v Limavady Grammar, Banbridge Academy v Dromore High, Foyle College v Regent House, Portadown College v Wellington College, Larne Grammar v Dalriada, Lurgan College v Strabane Academy, Friends' v Antrim Grammar.

Belfast Telegraph

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