Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Wallace ready to rip up script

Wallace High's Ben Finlay keeps
Ballymena Academy at arm's length. Now the Lisburn lads are planning to hold off the challenge of Methodist College
Wallace High's Ben Finlay keeps Ballymena Academy at arm's length. Now the Lisburn lads are planning to hold off the challenge of Methodist College

For a team such as Wallace High, who have never won the Danske Bank Schools' Cup despite reaching the final on four occasions, there can be no more daunting a quarter-final fixture than facing an in-form Methodist College at Pirrie Park.

Indeed, one would think that there may have been a collective sigh of despondency emanating from the Lisburn school when the draw for the last eight paired them with Nicky Wells' side almost a fortnight ago.

Not so, according to the team's coach Derek Suffern who believes his players will use their underdog tag as added motivation when they prepare to kick-off against the competition's holders and most successful side on Saturday morning.

Ahead of the game, he commented: "We're under no illusions as to the size of the task involved in playing Methody away.

"They're obviously a really strong side who have a lot of representative players in their team.

"We're aware from their game against Campbell in the last round that they're very good defensively and will take their scores well if you give them an opportunity.

"Although, you want to play the best teams and our boys are really up for the game and looking forward to the challenge.

"We know nobody expects us to win but we have a confident group who will be going there thinking about getting a result."

Indeed, it says much about the recent strides made by Wallace under Suffern, who is also enjoying a successful year coaching table-topping Ballynahinch in All-Ireland 1B, that his players will possess genuine hope that they can progress to the semi-finals.

Such self-belief will no doubt have been buoyed by a hugely impressive victory away at Ballymena Academy in the last round.

Given home advantage, many would have expected John Andrews' side to have the edge in that contest but the visitors came away with a largely convincing 28-13 victory that included a brace of tries from full-back Jacob Stockdale.

Suffern, now in his fifth year in charge of the school's First XV, feels the tie was perfect preparation for Saturday's match-up.

"The fact that we were able to go there and beat another top eight side away from home will give us a lot confidence that we have the ability to do the same this weekend.

"To be honest, we have had an up and down year but since Christmas we've been building up nicely and everybody saw that in the Ballymena game.

"The boys had a great trip away to Portugal that really helped us and we've been getting the results that we want recently."

If Wallace could pull off the unlikely victory and go on a run in the competition, it would act as a fitting tribute to their former pupil Nevin Spence, the young Ulster starlet whose life was tragically cut short after a farming accident back in September of last year.

Before starring for Ballynahinch and then Ulster, Spence attended the Lisburn school where, despite being a focal point of the side who reached the 2007 Schools' Cup Final, he was just as well-regarded for his off-the-field attributes.

And Suffern thinks it would be apt if Spence's former schoolmates could go on to lift the trophy at Ravenhill next month.

"Obviously we are driven to do our best to win the cup every year but it would be extra special if we could do something this time around given the tragedy with Nevin.

"We did superbly well with him in the team and in his short time here (after moving from Dromore High) he really was so well thought of by everybody."

Spence was part of a recent Wallace tradition in Ulster rugby that has also produced vice-captain Chris Henry and Ian Whitten, who has since moved on to the Exeter Chiefs.

Albeit at U-19 level, current Wallace out-half Jordan Grattan is also making a name for himself with Ulster and was the star of proceedings for his school in the last round.

Suffern reserves special praise for Grattan, stating: "He really is a very good player as well as being somebody that I have a lot of time for.

"He's been involved with Ulster, as well as getting into the Ireland U-19 set-up, and he does so well at controlling the game for us."

Although deprived of the services of the highly-rated duo of Peter Weir and James McCallen through injury, Wallace can also call on Aaron Gilkinson, another who has received representative honours this season.

Indeed, the tighthead prop's battle in the scrum with Methody captain and Ireland U-19 player Ross Kane should prove one of the more fascinating aspects of the tie, while Wallace will also have to be wary of the talents of Michael Lagan, Marc Campbell and Patrick Colhoun.

Reflecting on the earlier contest between the two, Suffern concludes: "We played them earlier in the season at Pirrie and they were very comfortable, beating us 26-10 on the day," adding after a pause: "but we've progressed a good bit since then."

If Wallace are in the draw for the semi-finals come Saturday afternoon, no doubt many will be raising an eyebrow. It doesn't appear that their coach will be one of them.