Schools' Cup: Wallace have point to prove as 2015 runners-up think big
With a side bearing little resemblance to the one which lost last year's final, Wallace High School enter the Danske Bank Schools' Cup third round tomorrow with a daunting trip to Ballymena Academy.
But the Lisburn school are still intent on making a statement against their hosts, who are also appearing for the first time in this year's competition, and the smattering of players Wallace have retained from 2015 at least know exactly what it takes to make it all the way to the St Patrick's Day showpiece.
That narrow 14-10 defeat to Royal Belfast Academical Institution last year has left its mark - it was Wallace's fifth final appearance though all have seen them lose, their last three being since the turn of the century with each one a defeat to Inst.
And though the side have had to rebuild, there is still plenty of belief that Wallace's comparative inexperience offers the potential of a Cup upset.
Wallace Director of Rugby, and former pupil of the school, Derek Suffern said: "We're very much a new team.
"We've 13 new players from last year so this has very much been a rebuilding season for us but we've been going okay and we've had some good performances building up into this game."
Wallace have already met Ballymena twice this season with each school winning on their home patch. Their last meeting was in Lisburn when Suffern's squad nicked it by a point.
The same again would be very welcome tomorrow, though Suffern maintains that it was played on a reduced-sized pitch - Wallace's main pitch was out of action - which hardly means that too much can be read into the result.
Suffern explained: "We're under no illusions about how difficult it's going to be and especially so going away from home.
"They are very strong and they are a very experienced group, a lot of their guys played in the Cup last year when they got knocked out (narrowly and in the third round) by Methody."
Work ethic is the key term for this Wallace squad. Nothing too flashy, just a willingness to put in the effort to deliver performances good enough to graft out the desired results.
"We're definitely not the team we were last year but we're still a competitive side," Suffern, who is assisted by Neil Hinds, stated.
"The boys will work hard and that's really our strength, that we have 15 guys trying to work hard for each other.
"We're trying to develop a game that's compact and pretty simple. It's one that limits our errors and involves our 15 players working very hard.
"If we can get that right we're hard enough to beat on our day."
Two players bound to have a key role in Wallace's plans are scrum-half and skipper Jonny Stewart and winger Ben Finlay.
Both were part of last year's side and only came away with losers' medals from St Patrick's Day at the Kingspan Stadium while another important cog in the Lisburn school's side is back-rower Gary Dillon, who was on the bench for the 2015 final.
Stewart has played for Ulster and Ireland at schools level while Finlay - Wallace are hoping he will have shaken off his hamstring issue to play tomorrow - has also turned out for the province.
"Yes, those three players have the experience from last year," Suffern stated.
"The others are very much guys who played on the twos last year and who've worked really hard to develop a good work ethic for this year."
As for the weather, Suffern feels that Wallace can adapt to the conditions and reckons that Ballymena can do exactly the same.
"I don't think the conditions are going to make a huge difference to either side," he said.
"We like to play a bit, so we'd like a dry day to get our running game going but we also want to get our tight game working to vary our approach and play the conditions.
"They'd want a dry day for their attacking game but they went to Methody and beat them playing a really tight game so they can do both as well."
And just to downplay Wallace's chances of an upset, Suffern added: "We've no real superstars in the team but our form is okay and quite a lot of them (the squad) will be back next year."
Maybe, but this Wallace side have a point to prove and are ready to give it their all.