RBAI v Campbell College Schools' Cup: Campbell boys want final hurrah and finish on a high
As they prepare to go their separate ways in the coming months, tomorrow's Danske Bank Schools' Cup final against champions RBAI (3pm) will be the final game for a group of Campbell College students who have played together for over a decade.
Just 18-years-old, Paddy Beverland, Jack Howard, Jonny Haldane, Malcolm Corry and Nicolai Koplewsky have been team-mates for more than two-thirds of their lives after joining together at Belfast Harlequins mini-rugby all the way back in 2004.
Tomorrow will not even represent the first time they have played at the Kingspan Stadium.
As primary school pupils in 2008, the group that will be filling Campbell jerseys nine through 13 provided the half-time entertainment at an inter-provincial derby between Ulster and Munster.
Stephen Deyermond, one of four men who coached the group in their earliest years together, said: "It's a remarkable achievement for them and goes some way to explaining the success of the Campbell backline.
"As a minis-team right through the age groups they were an all-conquering team, winning many festivals.
"To be honest the entire team, including the non-Campbell boys, were fantastic but the likes of Jack Howard and Paddy Beverland always stood out for their running ability, tackling and will to win.
"The team were coached by myself, Trevor Jordan, Nicolai Koplewsky senior and Peter Stewart, but in truth they didn't take much coaching.
"Like me, I am sure all the coaches are immensely proud of their achievements and wish them every success against RBAI.
"Indeed, speaking as a Collegian, we wish all teams success against RBAI!"
With such familiarity among much of their squad, Campbell's captain and hooker James Boyle - who came to the sport from his first love, football, after moving to Belfast from Milton Keynes 10 years ago - feels his side are ready to dethrone champions Inst as they aim to become the first side to win both the Schools' Cup and Medallion Shield in consecutive seasons and to win both those competitions and the 2nd and 3rd XV competitions in the same campaign.
"Our group has been the same since first year," Boyle (below) said. "I joined later on, after playing Cs and Ds, so we've picked up players along the way and we're all the better for it, but it's nice to have that core of the team together since the early days in mini-rugby and the majority together since first year.
"Our last game together on St Paddy's Day will be special for us all."
With both sides boasting powerful packs and threatening backlines, an exciting game for neutrals looks set for Ulster schools' rugby's biggest stage and, with RBAI having seen off the challenge of a fancied Ballymena Academy outfit in the last-four, Boyle feels it is a contest between the finest teams in the province.
"It's the final everyone wants; the two best teams in Ulster," he said.
"The Belfast edge doesn't mean much. We're just two big schools and I'm sure it's a great occasion for everyone.
"Both teams have strengths across the park; it's not just a forward's game. Both teams, us in particular, have a lethal backline. It'll be exciting."
Schools' Cup final: Kingspan Stadium, Thurs 3pm