RBAI's belief key for clash of the titans
Published 21/02/2014 | 01:31
When the draw for Saturday's Danske Bank Schools' Cup quarter-finals was made two weeks ago, RBAI head coach Daniel Soper could have been forgiven for thinking his luck had deserted him.
Even for the likes of Inst, who rarely enter a game as the underdog, being paired with old rivals Methody – seemingly infallible at this level over the past three seasons – was far from the desired outcome.
Since losing a last-eight tie to Campbell College back in 2011, the Malone Road school have reeled off nine consecutive victories in this competition, scoring 232 points in the process while conceding a mere 33.
However, while Soper admits the draw is a daunting one, the affable Kiwi – who only joined the school this year from a Ballyclare High team beaten by Methody in the 2012 final – is quick to point out that his side are more than capable of derailing Methody's seemingly unstoppable procession towards a record 35th outright title.
Ahead of tomorrow's contest at Cranmore Park (10.30am), he said: "Well obviously it's a massive draw for us and I suppose it is the one that everybody dreads getting.
"They've been the front-runners for a few years in this competition and they set the standards.
"We know it's a big, big challenge for us but they're like every other team, there'll be some cracks and we'll be trying to find them."
One thing that RBAI do have in their favour is home advantage, a fact that Soper feels could be crucial.
"Everybody has been saying that it's earlier than you would want to meet them but Inst haven't been too successful playing them at Ravenhill recently so maybe it's better to get them at this stage when we have them at home."
The earlier meeting with Methody this season also did not go according plan, a 23-7 defeat back in October, but Soper stressed that much has changed since that autumn morning.
He stated: "I think maybe at the beginning it took a long time for the different plans and structures that I was putting in place to really bed in.
"We're now showing signs of being a pretty effective team and after Christmas we've put in good performances in some big games.
"It's sometimes difficult to measure a good season at this point because the Schools' Cup is so important.
"I mean if we beat Methody on Saturday then nothing that has gone before is going to matter to anyone."
And while he is aware of the sometimes fractious history between his new employers and their cross-town rivals, he stressed that it would be easy to overstate any ill-feeling between the pair.
"Obviously there's a lot of history to the fixture but it's maybe not felt as much between the players now.
"These boys have probably gone to primary school together, they'll have played together on representative teams together and they'll see each other outside school, so they will be friends.
"It's a special game but in terms of a rivalry we just know there have been some great meetings in the past and we hope there's another one on Saturday."
Ulster's young winger Michael Allen has plenty of experience in this fixture –he played a starring role when Methody beat RBAI in the 2009 final – and he agrees with Soper's assertion.
He commented: "It's a rivalry that has been huge since time began almost, and it is maybe a bit rougher on the pitch, but off the pitch there's a lot of respect between the two sides.
"I know that Methody have a lot of players who have been on representative teams, and I'm sure that Inst are the same.
"When you're in school, this is the biggest rugby competition in the world to you.
"These games are always electric and I'm sure it will be the same on Saturday."
Allen's Methody side, that contained current Ulster teammates Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson Niall Annett and Michael Heaney, won the trophy in both 2008 and 2009 but coach Nicky Wells is hoping to see his team go one better this year.
Boasting five players who were part of the Ireland under-19 squad that played Australia Schools at Ravenhill back in December, the current crop are aiming to deliver a third consecutive crown – a feat not achieved since Methody's trio of titles collected between 1989 and 1991.
Before they can indelibly ink their names into the history books, however, all eyes will be on Cranmore Park as they attempt to see off the considerable challenge of their most storied rivals.