RBAI secure third Schools' Cup win with victory over Methodist College
RBAI secured a third Schools' Cup win in a row by beating Methodist College 12-8 at Kingspan Stadium.
Making history against their oldest rivals, things couldn’t have been any sweeter for RBAI on St Patrick’s Day as they fought their way to a third consecutive Danske Bank Schools’ Cup with a victory over Methody.
For all their success in the competition, and yesterday represented a 32nd outright title, not since the 1940s had Inst strung together three-in-a-row with the core of their side having been involved in each of the trio of titles.
As in the past two seasons, it was a close run affair though, with a pair of early tries all they could muster while Methody played much of the second-half in the ascendancy.
Indeed if not for a try-saving tackle in the corner from inspirational skipper Michael Lowry, who injured himself in the process, the ribbons on the famous old trophy could have been blue and white, not yellow and black.
When the two powerhouses, playfully called the Old Firm by players in a nod to the intense rivalry, won their semi-finals last month, it ensured that their duopoly would extend to a sixth straight year, with many believing RBAI would have things their own way once again.
But with Methody’s back-row making an early impression it was clear that things wouldn’t be quite so straightforward this time.
But a good take from David McCann set Inst’s forwards up for their first real rumble and things were looking ominous for Methody as they drove towards the line.
With the underdogs having spoiled Inst’s ball well in the early going, scrum-half Rhys O’Donnell had been forced to dig for possession early on but was rewarded for his persistence as he went himself from the goal-line breakdown, utilising a fine dummy to create a moment’s hesitation.
Hume’s fine sideline conversion made it 7-0 and the second score wasn’t long coming.
For all the talk of Inst’s threatening backline, set-piece efficiency was in full effect as McCann peeled off his fellow forwards to barge over but it was the last points they would score.
As Methody pressed for an immediate response, they were undone by Lowry.
The captain, in his third final, may be diminutive but he had all the power required to fight for a loose ball, saving a try when a penalty relieved the pressure.
Methody would get the crucial next score though, also coming from a maul.
Jonah Bingham claimed the dart from touch with number 8 Thomas Gallagher looking set to go over but for a last-ditch tackle.
While a number of forwards made a push for the line, Methody kept their composure well to recognise the space outside and work wing Chris Larmour over in the corner.
The conversion drifted off target and 12-5 was how it stayed until the turn.
Now with the conditions in their favour, Methody had the better of the second-half.
Inst looked set to regather the momentum when Paul Kerr was binned six minutes after the restart for a high tackle, but Hume soon followed him to the sidelines for a similar offence.
And Methody then looked set for their second in the corner only for Lowry to deny Larmour a brace with a great tackle in the corner that forced him into touch.
Sadly it would be Lowry’s last action of the game as he was forced off despite lengthy treatment.
Kerr reduced the arrears with a penalty but, even without their captain, Inst held firm.
A tense finish was ensured when they couldn’t score off a scrum in the opposing 22 but, try as they might, Methody just couldn’t launch one last assault.
The trophy was staying just where it was.
METHODIST COLLEGE: K Doherty; E McIlroy, J McConnell, P Kerr, C Larmour; T Armstrong, J Jordan; D Morelli, J Trainor, B Crangle; J Bingham, H Gibbons; C Kelly, M Loane (capt), T Gallagher
REPLACEMENTS: C Conn, E Gentry, C Fletcher, K McNaboe, C Kelly, M Neill, L Millar, L Lowry
INST: J Finnegan; Z Davidson, J Hume, D Lyttle, N Armstrong; M Lowry (capt), R O'Donnell; C Reid, N Saulters, M Nelson; D Wallace, D McCann; P Finnegan, C Cloke, Y Omar
REPLACEMENTS: C McCormick, P McLernon, E SLoan, B Gribben, E Field, A Adair, R McIlveen, S Fryers
It suits Methodist College just fine that they are coming in under the radar to today's Schools' Cup final showdown with holders and favourites RBAI at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 3pm).
>>Scroll down - Jonathan Bradley's live match coverage - begins 3pm<<
And though they had to really batten down the hatches to avoid defeat to Down High School and then Royal School Armagh - in both games Methody had to come from behind to win - Nicky Wells' side were able to showcase their abilities in the semi-final with BRA when they scored six tries in winning 37-21.
And for their captain Matty Loane, this is a golden opportunity to finish off his playing career at the school on a high and potentially bring the trophy back to Methody for the first time since 2014 when, incidentally, the most successful side in the competition's history ended up notching their last hat-trick of titles.
"Last year we only got to the quarter-finals (losing to Campbell) so to get to the final in my last year is unbelievable," said back-rower Loane, who is studying English, Drama and Business Studies for A Level.
"I think that we've come through a lot of challenges so far but this is the last one and we just need to completely focus on playing and winning. We're so close, yet so far."
The two old rivals have already met in a friendly, which didn't turn out well for Methody, but Loane doesn't buy into that result having any bearing on what will unfold today.
"I think player-wise we hadn't figured out our team at all," the skipper stated of the sides' earlier meeting.
"But this is a final. It's nil-nil and it's a whole new game."
Having not been in a Schools' Cup final for three years - indeed, since 2004 there has only been one other final, in 2010, when St Patrick's Day has been without one if not both of Methody and Inst featuring - clearly puts the underdogs coached by Wells at a further disadvantage when it comes to experiencing the showpiece day.
However, Loane stresses that this has been addressed.
"The Schools' Cup has a massive tradition at the school, and the coaches have made sure that we do realise how big a day it is," he said.
"We have to make sure we don't go out ourselves and let the occasion get the better of us. Our aim is to just stay confident and focused instead."
If Methody are to pull off a shock victory then they simply have to win the battle up front, where No.8 Thomas Gallagher can really get them on the front foot.
And, by implication, they must then produce enough quality ball to release their star centre pairing of place-kicker Paul Kerr - who scored a hat-trick in their semi-final triumph - and James McConnell.
"Paul's a big talker and he reminds me of Jonny Sexton the way he shouts at us and that's good," said Loane with a smile.
Methody will need that and more for a 36th outright title.
Methody's route to the final
Fourth round: Down High School 8 MCB 15.
Quarter-final: RS Armagh 24 MCB 28.
Semi-final: MCB 37 BRA 21.
MCB: K Doherty, E McIlroy, J McConnell, P Kerr, C Larmour, T Armstrong, J Jordan; D Morelli, J Trainor, B Crangle, J Bingham, H Gibbons, C Kelly, T Gallagher, M Loane (capt)
Replacements: C Conn, E Gentry, C Fletcher, K McNaboe, C Kelly, M Neill, L Millar, L Lowry.