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Ambitious Strabane eager to continue making Schools' Cup strides


By Michael Sadlier

Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, they will be up and about very early, but at least there will be a certain familiarity about the day for the Strabane Academy squad as they prepare for their Danske Bank Schools' Cup first round tie at distant Carrick Grammar.

The lengthy bus journey to come is far from ideal, but is readily accepted as what must be done to play regularly outside their more immediate vicinity.

And at least this weekend's opposition don't represent a step into the unknown for the Academy squad as this is the third year running that the two have been pitted together in the opening round of the Schools' Cup.

More significantly, though, for the here and now, the sides recently met in a friendly encounter in the full knowledge that they could easily be drawn together in the first round, which only involves four schools.

Despite the distance in getting to Carrick, the majority of the Academy's squad will travel buoyed by the memory of last year's corresponding opener which saw the north Tyrone school - created in 2011 from the amalgamation of the town's high and grammar schools - make history by winning their first Schools' Cup game, albeit at home.

The Strabane side, who are overseen by Academy PE teacher Niall McDonnell, his colleagues Steve Sargent and Adam Bratton, as well as external coach and former Ulster player Stevie Smyth, also signed off on their key game-time preparation by beating an under-age team from City of Derry last week.

Getting the Academy to this point, just six years after the school's formation when rugby had badly fallen away at the former grammar, has taken an enormous amount of work from McDonnell and his colleagues, but it has been, and remains, a labour of love for the former Ireland cricket international.

"We began the rebuilding process (after the amalgamation), and the Academy's headmaster David Hampton was adamant that he wanted rugby back up again," recalled McDonnell.

That process began by fielding teams in the second and third XV cup competitions with a view to gradually building the game at the school while bolstering it for the future from the junior intake.

For a small school which has no substantial rugby pedigree it was an ambitious plan, but now seems to be paying dividends in terms of promoting and developing the game at the currently split-campus Academy.

"It's been quite an accelerated learning curve for everybody involved," said McDonnell. "Our plan was that this current sixth form group would be the first group in the Schools' Cup, but we worked very hard and went into the first round of the Schools' Cup proper in 2014 ahead of schedule."

They lost to Antrim Grammar that year and then Carrick the following one before turning the tables on the latter school 12 months ago to the tune of 17-0 on that unforgettable morning at the Academy's Liskey Road site.

And even though the Academy exited last season's competition in the next round at Lurgan College, before an injury-ravaged squad came unstuck in the Schools' Trophy at Antrim, the leg-up for the game from getting that first victory has been considerable.

"Last year was massive for us to get through that first round," said McDonnell. "We've only 520 in the whole school and about 210 are boys, so we can't really afford to lose boys who can play.

"We probably have 10 guys in each year group now playing rugby and that's a third of the boys at the school."

Spreading the game is working, and some form of success, the Schools' Cup win over Carrick being the catalyst, has brought positive development for the current squad, who are skippered by Ralph Mealiff.

"We had 27 players in Portugal on half-term at a training camp, and that's the largest squad we've ever had," said McDonnell. "Playing schools' rugby means a lot to these boys."

Around nine of the Academy's senior side were involved last year meaning the squad has what could be a useful core of experienced players.

"These are now the crop of boys who were the first year of Strabane Academy," said McDonnell. "Because they were the first group through in first year, we paid particular attention to them."

They notably made it to the Medallion Trophy final in 2015, where they lost heavily to Omagh Academy, but that still helped push the game forward.

It works both ways, though, meaning that those nine will be gone after this academic year.

"The quality we'll lose is very difficult to replace," he admitted.

They put out a second team and a Medallion side, while there is a hybrid junior squad hungry for games.

Considering the school started from ground level after the Academy was created, enormous progress has been made, and work goes on with a determination that refuses to accept that location should be an impediment.

"We've a reasonable squad but they haven't had a home game yet this year," stated McDonnell.

"Would they like more home games? I'm sure they would. But we just get on with it. It's just massive for these guys that they get a chance to play rugby."

Tomorrow is another stage of the journey.

Belfast Telegraph


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