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Down can be shining lights

Having nurtured the early creative talents of the band that would go on to become Ash, Down High is a school perhaps more famous for producing chart success than winning rugby teams.

However, with recent sides having contained gifted individuals such as Glasgow Warriors' flying wing Tommy Seymour, there is a feeling that the vast improvement shown by the school in recent years is only set to continue.

That theory is sure to be tested this weekend when the First XV make the long trip to the north west to face Foyle and Londonderry College in the Third Round of the Danske Bank Schools’ Cup.

Ahead of the tie, Down High's Head of Rugby Charlie Knox is keen to down play the fixture but accepts that Schools' Cup fever will inevitably be felt throughout Downpatrick this weekend.

“We never want to put too much importance on one game because you can't judge your efforts on knock-out rugby alone,” he commented.

“Last year we had brilliant season but if we were going just on the Schools' Cup then we would have thrown the towel in because we lost in our first game.

“There can be a lot of added pressure to these types of occasions which doesn't necessarily help, but obviously there's no getting away from the fact that this will be the biggest game of the year for us and it's all anyone is going to be asking the boys about.”

The fact that Knox, along with fellow coach John Gunson, bring their Down High team to Springtown with a sense of expectation rather than mere hope says much about the changing rugby culture within the rural school.

It is part of an ongoing effort to foster a successful rugby ethos throughout the campus and it's a policy that the coach feels will continue to reap dividends in future years.

“I started here in 2009 and there's been a real attempt from all the staff and coaches during that time to build up the rugby,” he explained.

“Even things like having our own dedicated website and bringing in outside coaches to do special training sessions helps get boys interested early in their time here and the more numbers a school like us has to choose from the better.

“Places like Methody and Campbell can define success by thiscompetition but they have enough pupils that they are able to handle afew injuries.

“That's perhaps the big difference between us and the bigger teams so it really is important for us to get as big a pool of players as possible and we have been trying to get a system in place that will deliver that.”

That effort will no doubt be aided when students can look at the success of recent past pupils who have gone on to play at a high level upon completing their studies at the school.

Tommy Seymour left Down High in 2007 and, after spending time with Ulster, joined RaboPro12 rivals Glasgow Warriors in 2011.

Having scored six tries in 12 games this season, Seymour has been called into interim Head Coach Scott Johnson's first Scotland squad where he will be vying for a starting position with star names such as Tim Visser and Sean Maitland during the upcoming Six Nations Championship.

As well as Seymour, John Donnan and Justin Rea are involved with the UlsterRavens and Ulster Under-19s respectively, while there are a number of ex-Dunumians regularly turning out for Ballynahinch in the Senior and All-Ireland leagues.

“A part of our improvement has definitely came with the success of Ulster rugby and Ballynahinch rugby, who we have a very close relationship with,” he said.

“It's great for our young guys to be able to see somebody who went to this school along every step of the way, right from representative rugby to senior rugby and even up to the professional game with Tommy at Glasgow.”

Down High's third round opponents earned the tie with an impressive 31-24 win over Portora in the last round round, triumphing over the County Fermanagh School thanks to a hat-trick from Ryan Curry.

As well as the try-scoring centre, Down High will need to be wary of Ulster Under-19 fly-half Neil Burns who will be sure to punish any mistakes made within kicking distance of the posts.

The Downpatrick school have their own junior Ulster player in Thomas Donnan, while Kelvin Hamilton has also had previous experience atrepresentative level.

Although Knox is aware of the threat posed by Foyle, and Burns in particular, he prefers to talk about the ability of his own charges. “We don't want to say too much about our opposition, we'd rather focus on our own game, but we know it'll be competitive,” he added.

The school motto, ‘Floreat Dunum', translates from Latin to read 'may Down flourish'; the First XV will certainly believe they can do so on Saturday.

Belfast Telegraph