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Inst close in on double dream after beating Ballymena

Ballymena 19-27 RBAI

By Jonathan Bradley

Inst are one step away from securing back-to-back Danske Bank Schools' Cup titles for the first time in almost 70 years after overcoming Ballymena Academy 27-19 in the first semi-final yesterday.

An entertaining game at the Kingspan Stadium, the champions ran in four tries to their opponents' three but had to weather late pressure to hold on for victory.

Despite their standing in the province, Inst have not won consecutive titles since reeling off six in a row in the 1940s with head coach Daniel Soper saying that last year's success has the school hungry for more in 2016.

"I said to my wife this morning, I'm just not ready for the season to finish," he said after watching his side's victory yesterday.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to lose, I just wasn't ready to wrap the season up.

"That comes from having been in the final and winning it last year.

"You get caught up with the hype and once you've been a part of it you want it again.

"I'm delighted that our season has another couple of weeks to go now."

Ballymena, who last won the trophy in 2010 when they defeated the BRA of Iain Henderson and Stuart Olding, started the game with real intent, their kicking game causing the Belfast school all kinds of problems.

There were 15 minutes on the clock before that superiority translated onto the scoreboard.

Inst were penalised on the deck and out-half Bruce Houston, who showed real flashes of quality, found touch on the edge of the 22.

Oisin Jordan rose the highest to claim the lineout and both Jonathan McKeown and Azur Allison made drives for the line off quick ball.

While the back-rowers were halted, prop David Forsythe was on hand to force his way over from close range.

Their superiority continued for a further five minutes until an opportunistic score levelled proceedings.

Ballymena worked the ball well across the field with numbers to the left but, having just failed to exploit the space to send winger Conor Cosgrove into the clear, Inst No.8 David Whitten intercepted a pass to run home from the halfway line.

James Hume took his time over the conversion but nailed the kick for a 7-7 tie.

The outside centre was instrumental in his side's next score, making a strong break that freed Rhys O'Donnell.

The scrum-half then delayed his pass perfectly to send captain Conor Field across the whitewash.

With the turn fast approaching, Inst scored for the third time in 15 minutes when they held firm in the scrum for just long enough to allow O'Donnell and Mark Keane to combine and create an opening for out-half Michael Lowry. Hume converted for a 19-7 lead at the break.

Seven minutes into the second period, a Ballymena line-out went awry with the ball then worked wide for Hume - involved so heavily for the duration - to release Keane for his side's fourth and final try.

With Ballymena coming back into the contest thereafter, Soper was relieved to see his side take advantage of their purple patch.

"We scored some cracking tries, and those scores coming up to half-time proved the difference, but outside of that I thought the score flattered us," he said.

"It didn't feel like an eight-point victory. I thought Ballymena were the better team in the second-half so those scores were crucial.

"I thought they started better and we were lucky to get that intercept.

"We were happy enough after 20 minutes only 7-0 down; it was a bit of a bonus."

With 15 minutes remaining, Michael Stronge and McKeown, who carried reliably all afternoon, advanced the ball but Ballymena's forwards crashed against a stern defensive wall.

When they eventually moved the ball wide, Houston sent Mark Thompson across the line.

After the missed conversion, Hume stroked over a penalty to again make it a three-score game.

Ballymena weren't finished yet though, crossing again through Christopher McLeister, but despite having plenty of chances for more in an engrossing endgame, Inst held on without further concession to book a Kingspan Stadium return on St Patrick's Day.

With Soper expecting to face Belfast rivals Campbell College - who meet Dalriada in the second semi-final today - he feels his side will need to be better if they are to lift the trophy again.

"We're just happy to get through it to be honest," he said.

"Campbell have been the form side all year, I expect they'll win their semi. It won't be easy. They're the form side."

RBAI: Joseph Finnegan; Conor Field, James Hume, Ben McGavock, Mark Keane; Michael Lowry, Rhys O'Donnell; Callum Reid, Neil Saulters, John Dickson, Harry Gallagher, Pierce McLernon, Charlie Fryers, Charles Cloke, David Whitten.

Replacements: Bailey Gribben, Jake Chambers, Corrie Barrett, Blair Robinson, Yasser Omar, Niall Armstrong, David Lyttle, Zak Davidson.

Ballymena Academy: Mark Thompson; Conor Cosgrove, Alan Small, Angus Kernohan, Conor Gallagher; Bruce Houston, Michael Stronge; David Forsythe, Alexander Clarke, Josh Bill; Oisin Jordan, Christopher McLeister; Marcus Rea, Jonathan McKeown, Azur Allison.

Replacements: Joel Gocher, Tim Savoury, Scott Agnew, Matthew Moody, James McLean, Conor Barkley, Jordan Foster Conor Agnew

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