New-look RBAI face tough task to clinch fourth successive Schools' Cup, says Soper
Having brought the past three Danske Bank Schools' Cups back to Osborne Park, RBAI head coach Dan Soper is predicting one of the most open competitions in years when things kick off next month.
The Kiwi, who is also head coach at Banbridge RFC, has overseen the most successful run at the storied school since the 1940s, but sees plenty of potential challengers for the crown that will once again be decided at Kingspan Stadium in March.
"There's the usual suspects," said Soper of the traditional powerhouses.
"We've had a tight tussle with Methody already and we'll get a look at Campbell this weekend when we face them.
"Then you have Ballymena, they're a top side with real quality players but you have lots of other teams too that are capable.
"It's refreshing to see the likes of Friends doing well. Schools are always evolving, getting stronger or having dips. We'll have to have our house in order to see them off.
"We've Campbell and Wallace coming up, Clongowes and PBC from outside the province, and we'll play the Canada Under-19s at Christmas.
"Tough matches are the best preparation, there's no substitute for them."
Having defeated Methody in last year's final with an experienced squad, many of whom already had one and in some cases two medals from previous years, there has been plenty of change in the side this season with two thirds of the 2016-17 team having moved on.
Building a new game plan to suit a team now without key players such as Michael Lowry, James Hume, Rhys O'Donnell and Callum Reid is a challenge Soper relishes.
"There's as big a turnover as I've ever had, but that can be good," he added. "We start again and try to have everything in place. It's a new group and new challenge.
"I think that's why you can stay in a role in a school for a long time. You've seen guys in the past coaching the first XV for 20 years or more and the reason for that is that you stay fresh with a new group."
While the holders don't enter the fray until the first weekend of February, the first round of the competition is now less than three weeks away with the draw being made at Kingspan yesterday.
With only four teams beginning the competition at the first hurdle, the first round sees Belfast High School make the short trip to Wellington College, while Strabane Academy have the more arduous journey away to Carrickfergus.
The winners of those games already know who they will face in round two, with those ties to be played on January 6.
Eight more teams will enter for round three before the competition's heavy hitters, such as the defending champions, come in for round four.
First Round Draw (ties to be played on December 9): Carrickfergus GS v Strabane Academy; Wellington College v Belfast HS. Round Two Draw (ties to be played January 6): Cambridge House v Banbridge Academy, Carrickfergus/Strabane v Regent House , Foyle College v Dromore HS, Grosvenor GS v Antrim GS, Larne GS v Lurgan College, Portadown College v Limavady GS, Rainey ES v Wellington/Belfast HS.