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Enniskillen stand united and are aiming to kick ahead

Schools' Cup rugby

By Michael Sadlier

The third round of the Danske Bank Ulster Schools' Cup throws up another first tomorrow morning as Enniskillen Royal Grammar School enter the fray.

The name is new but the educational establishment formerly known as Portora Royal School - the new identity came into effect last summer after the merger with Enniskillen Collegiate - comes with a rich history in the competition with the trophy having been brought to Fermanagh six times before from 12 previous final appearances.

Even though Portora last got their hands on the cup in 1942 - when they shared the title with Royal Belfast Academical Institution - it seemed apt that they signed off by gaining silverware last March when the side coached by former Ballymena and Belfast Harlequins centre Rhys Botha secured the Schools' Bowl ahead of gaining their new name and shirt colours.

And they did so after agonisingly losing out by a mere point - the final score was 14-13 against Botha's boys - to Regent House in last year's Schools' Cup second round.

As fate would have it, though, the draw has brought Enniskillen Royal face-to-face with Dromore High School (kick-off 11.00am) who really are new to the competition and host tomorrow's clash after narrowly defeating Banbridge Academy in a replay.

Tomorrow's game at Dromore represents a hugely significant moment for Botha and his squad as they seek to back up last season's success in the subsidiary competition with a decent start to this campaign's main event.

And Botha (above), now in his third year at the school, is quick to emphasise that, for all the change about the place, the status quo is entirely unaltered when it comes to matters rugby.

"The only thing that has changed is the name of the school," stated the South African, who is assisted by Ashley Finlay.

"Everything is as it was, and the (Portora) old boys still watch the games and encourage us.

"The boys have bought into all of it and they just want to play rugby regardless of what they are called."

Winning the Bowl has been a springboard for the game at the school with a surge in numbers now wanting to be part of something which has delivered success.

"That (winning the Bowl) was a massive boost for the school," he explained.

"We have a (senior) squad of about 45 players where before we only had 30."

As for tomorrow, No.8 and captain Andrew Crawford, along with flanker Jack Rutledge, are key players for the Dromore clash though the general mix of the squad is young with only around five boys being in their final year.

"We do rely quite heavily on those two boys and they have a big influence on how we play," Botha said.

"But we have some other younger really good boys coming through."

Out-half Reece Smyton and second row Reece Barrett are just two young players making their way in the senior squad and are seen as key components of a side which will, encouragingly, largely stay together for next year.

"The team that won the Bowl mostly consisted of sixth formers and we lost about seven of them," Botha stated.

"But we've now got a bunch of really good young boys coming through.

"And with gaining maybe 20 to 22 boys from our Medallion squad, it means that hopefully next year we might be able to put out a third team for the first time in a long while."

As for their first ever game against Dromore, Botha is adamant that Enniskillen Royal - whose pre-game form is described by their coach as "good but it could be better" - will not be underestimating the newcomers and they know this represents a huge challenge for the squad.

"Schools' Cup rugby is a completely different thing than normal friendly matches on a Saturday," said Botha.

"It is always a tough match when it comes to this competition."

But even though there is a sense of the unknown about tomorrow morning's opponents, Botha feels that his squad have the ability to progress in the tournament.

"We just have to play our rugby and, if we do, I'm pretty confident that we can do well," he said.

And, overall, Botha is confident about the future of the game at the school.

"Rugby is in a very healthy place which is what my job is about and what I'm aiming for," he added.

Going through tomorrow is also part of the plan.

Belfast Telegraph

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