Schools' competitions remain crucial springboard for young talent
I was at Ravenhill on Monday afternoon for the draw for the opening round of the 2013-14 Danske Bank Schools' Cup and its junior equivalent, the Medallion Shield.
It was a good reminder not only of these competitions' rich history but of their ongoing relevance.
Having first been contested away back in 1876 when the Royal School Armagh became the first name on the trophy, the Schools' Cup is the second-oldest still-going competition in the world.
But as a launch-pad into top-flight modern-day rugby, its importance cannot be over-stated.
The current Ulster senior squad includes players who have come from 15 different rugby-playing schools.
Three of those players were Schools' Cup-winning captains –Neil McComb (Campbell College, 2002), Adam Macklin (Methodist College, 2008) and Niall Annett (Methodist College, 2009).
Ulster Branch president John Robinson said he was certain that, like those players, a number of those who figure in this year's competition will make their way into senior rugby, confident that others would make it at provincial level and hopeful that some would make their way onto the international stage.
"This competition sets a base for that," said the president, who acknowledged the role of Schools' Committee chaired by Ian Graham, and the participating schools' coaches whose task in preparing teams has not been eased by the continuing climate of fiscal austerity and ever more tightly squeezed budgets.
Some 17 different schools have won the competition, confirming the fact that although the capital city giants – Methodist College, RBAI, Campbell College and BRA – have had their share of the limelight, they have not had it all their own way.
Barney McGonigle, a name synonymous with schools' rugby if ever there was one, summed up what the competition means.
He said: "I think it was three seasons ago when Ulster beat Leicester here on the Friday night that of the squad of 23 players, 16 of them had been involved in Schools' Cup rugby in the previous seven or eight years."
And echoing what the president had said, he stressed: "It's a great competition in its own right, but it's also a stepping stone which players have been able to use in moving on to representative honours at age-grade level and then beyond that again to representative honours at Ulster and Irish levels.
"That's the way it has been in the past and we look forward to more of the same in the years ahead."
It all kicks off on January 11, the morning after Ulster host Montpellier in their penultimate pool-stage match of this season's Heineken Cup. It should prove to be quite a weekend.