Ballymena boys fired up to make it all the way to a Kingspan final
Ballymena Academy proved to be eventual Danske Bank Schools' Cup winners RBAI's most difficult hurdle in last year's competition - going down 27-19 in the semi-finals - and they believe they can go even further this time ahead of tomorrow's fourth round clash with Dalriada.
They have 17 of that squad back in action and 11 will be starting tomorrow.
Packed with representative players, they will be firm favourites against a team that began the competition in the second round. Academy have lost only once to Ulster sides this season, and that was narrowly to Down High early on.
They have a couple of players injured for the battle with Dalriada - winger Alan Small has a niggling hamstring problem and prop Ben Savage a knee injury
Coach Gavin Murray said: "We have been looking forward to the start of our campaign and have been building up to it.
"I know Dalriada have a few useful players so we are not taking anything for granted."
Of the 27 players in their squad, 14 have representative honours including their captain Alexander Clarke, Azur Allison, Bruce Houston, Angus Kernohan and Stewart Moore, who have all been involved with Irish Schools.
During the campaign, Kernohan and Small are hoping to play their 50th games for the 1st XV.
Under the coaching of John Andrews and Murray, the Galgorm Road side are reaching their peak at the right time and can be considered joint favourites with Inst to lift the trophy.
"We gave Inst a hard contest last year. We led 7-0 then eased off to allow them back into the game but we were the better team in the closing minutes and had there been another 10 minutes I feel we could have taken the Cup," reflected Murray.
"But that's in the past and we must take one step at a time but should we be fortunate to reach Kingspan for the semis then I would fancy our chances as the home/away aspect is nullified."
Dalriada coach Rab Gregg knows his team have a tough task on their hands and is pleased that they played a couple of earlier ties.
"We defeated Larne Grammar 48-3 and Limavady Grammar 13-5 both away from home and that has given us confidence but we realise Ballymena are one of the top seeded teams," he stated.
"They have plenty of skilful players and have few weaknesses. We are expecting a lot of trouble but at least we will be at home.
"I know our boys will give their best and we have a few talented players. Tommy Hunter in the centre has a habit of scoring in most games. He got four at Larne and our captain and other centre Denis Pasternak has a lot of ability. He is robust in defence and can accelerate through a gap."
Dalriada may have strength in the backs but that asset could be stifled as one of their problems is going to be winning ball against the much larger pack.
Danske Bank Schools' Cup (11.00 am unless stated) :- Campbell Coll v Sullivan Upper (10.30 am), Friends' v Grosvenor GS (10.30 am), Dalriada v Ballymena Academy, BRA v Rainey Endowed (10.45 am), Down HS v Methodist College, Enniskillen Royal v RS Armagh, RBAI v Ballyclare HS, Wallace HS v Omagh Academy.
Schools' Bowl ties : Limavady Grammar v Bangor Grammar, Lurgan College v Dromore High, Regent House v Coleraine Grammar, RS Dungannon v Portadown College
Schools' Trophy ties: Banbridge Academy v Antrim Grammar, Foyle College v Larne Grammar.