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Ballymena Academy will make it tough for Inst: Soper

By Michael Sadlier

The first of this year's semi-finals has the potential to be a very closely fought affair as in-form holders Royal Belfast Academical Institution do battle with a similarly strong Ballymena Academy side.

Even though Inst have only conceded three points on their journey to the last four - they saw off Coleraine 25-3 and overturned Sullivan by 38-0 - their head coach Dan Soper admits that this game will be a completely different challenge in his side's bid to make the St Patrick's Day final.

"They are a very good side and they've got a lot of outstanding players and I think they've actually got three of the best schoolboy players in the province," said Soper.

"We know it's going to be quite a challenge," the Kiwi insisted while also mentioning that the Belfast school's ultimate goal of winning back-to-back titles for the first time since 1947 and 1948 is a target which will be well and truly parked for this tricky looking encounter.

As for having a considerable core of experienced players who went on to triumph last year - forwards John Dickson, Callum Reid and Jake Chambers and backs James Hume, Joseph Finnegan, Ben McGavock and Michael Lowry were all at the final - Soper accepted that this may be a potential factor in what he feels will be a game of narrow margins.

"Of course it's good to have the recent experience of making it to the final last year and then winning but that doesn't in any way make it a given."

But Ballymena Academy go into this feeling that they can more than match Inst's all-round ability.

"We're confident we can get a result and we believe we can beat them," said Academy head coach John Andrews.

"This isn't just a whim as we believe we have a real chance of getting a result.

"In many ways they are similar to ourselves in that we also see our set-piece and back row as real strengths."

Props Josh Bill and David Forsythe and hooker Alexander Clarke - son of Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke - make up a formidable front row while their back row is also an area of notable strength and talent with containing flankers Marcus Rea and Johnny McKeown and number eight Azur Allison.

But it's not just forward power which Ballymena - most of whom will return next year - bring to the table as inside centre Angus Kernohan is a very strong and direct runner who Inst will have to try and contain if they are to triumph.

On paper, this looks as if it could be quite a game.

RBAI: J Finnegan, C Field (capt), J Hume, B McGavock, M Keane, M Lowry, R O'Donnell; C Reid, N Saulters, J Dickson, H Gallagher, P McLernon, C Fryers, C Cloke, D Whitten

Replacements: B Gribben, J Chambers, C Barrett, B Robinson, Y Omar, N Armstrong, D Lyttle, Z Davidson

Ballymena Academy: M Thompson, C Cosgrove, A Small, A Kernohan, C Gallagher, B Houston, M Stronge; D Forsythe, A Clarke, J Bill, O Jordan, C McLeister, M Rea (capt), J McKeown, A Allison

Replacements: J Gocher, T Savoury, S Agnew, M Moody, J McLean, C Barkley, J Foster C Agnew

RBAI gained revenge for two earlier defeats at the hands of Methodist College when they recorded a convincing 24-5 victory at Roughfort to qualify for the Danske Bank Schools' Medallion Shield final at Kingspan on Tuesday, March 8.

The other semi-final was a closer affair with BRA dictating the terms late on but running out of time against Wallace High at Osborne Park 20-15.

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