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Royal School Armagh's band of brothers still striving for Schools' Cup glory

Squad goals: The Armagh Royal boys who would love to go
one better than last year’s runners-up effort
Squad goals: The Armagh Royal boys who would love to go one better than last year’s runners-up effort
Up for it: Johnny Agnew winning a lineout during team training with the Royal School Armagh senior rugby squad

By Michael Sadlier

With experience always adding value to a squad, Royal School Armagh are quietly hoping that they can mine the seam of knowledge acquired last year to go one step further this time around.

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Nearly 12 months ago they faced off with Campbell College in the Danske Back Ulster Schools' Cup final, only to come up short on the day.

The desire to get there again is strong, while that taste of getting so close to acquiring the trophy has also driven standards forward at Armagh.

Not that the school reckon that having around 14 of last year's squad back again is a guarantee of anything and, indeed, just making the last four will be quite an achievement with an away quarter-final tomorrow morning at Ballymena Academy.

While the Royal School had a gentle enough introduction to the competition by sweeping Bangor Grammar aside in round four, Ballymena got the better of Belfast Royal Academy by just 17-12, so tomorrow's visitors know that they face quite a step up in competitiveness for this clash.

Chris Parker, who is assistant coach for the firsts, said: "They are one of the top seeds like ourselves and you know that if you're in the quarter-final there are really no weaker teams left in the competition.

"We'll try and do as much homework and preparation as we can on them but, ultimately, we'll just try and focus on ourselves and make sure we're prepared to hopefully gain us the victory," he added of the approach being adopted by head coach and former Ulster player Willie Faloon, who is director of rugby for the school.

The sides have already met this season in a post-Christmas friendly and, though Armagh narrowly won, little will have been gleaned from that occasion except that this time is also likely to be a close affair.

And though Armagh would have, naturally, preferred a home tie, going to Ballymena is not seen as an impediment to the squad's hopes of progressing.

"You'd always love a home draw, and home support does add a wee bit for you, but we were away from home for our two games last year (against Cambridge House and Wallace High School) before we got to the semi-final which is also a neutral venue (at Kingspan Stadium), so it's not that big a concern," stated Parker, who is a geography teacher at Armagh.

"And with us having played Cambridge House last year, the boys know what sort of time they are going to be on the bus.

"Also, our parents are brilliant and there will be buses with supporters coming from the school too, so we're pretty hopeful we'll have a decent crowd up in Ballymena," he added.

The legacy of last year's run to the final has been noticeable, with a clear hunger to try and replicate the achievement.

"We have lower sixth boys who've stepped up from when they were fifth years being on the seconds, and they have helped drive standards on," said Parker.

"They watched from afar last year and wished they were part of the 23 and they really want to try and experience that."

And for those who did taste action in the final, there is a definite sense of some unfinished business which needs to be pursued.

"Ultimately we obviously didn't get the result we wanted last year but that has made the boys (who were involved) come back, work harder and be hungrier this year," Parker stated.

Key to this are skipper Aaron Woods and Jonny Agnew, who are pivotal members of Armagh's pack, while centre Nicholas Jennings, who also played in last year's final, is also helping to push them on.

Winger Benji Boyd is another who leads by example at the long-established school who have made 13 final appearances and won the trophy nine times.

The Royal School, who won the very first Schools' Cup back in 1876 and last lifted the trophy in 2004 when the late John McCall was captain, currently put out four teams at senior level with the thirds primarily a Year 12 side.

There are two sides at Medallion level, with most of the B team's games played during the week rather than at weekends, which is also the case with the B teams put out at year nine and 10.

Armagh's first years play most Fridays and have upwards of 40 boys togging out for training. Girls' rugby is also on the rise with a senior and junior team playing the game and making progress.

While paying tribute to all the coaches involved in the game at the school, Parker also mentions former Ireland international winger Kenny Hooks who is a teacher at the school.

"Kenny is a great sounding board for Willie and myself to give advice whenever it's needed," he said.

"We're also very fortunate that we have a very committed bunch of coaches at the junior school, which makes senior school a lot easier for us as they are funnelling numbers through to us," said Parker, who also coaches City of Armagh's senior squad along with Faloon, further strengthening the already robust links between school and club.

In relation to tours, the school were in southern France last summer.

"We are hopeful of doing an overseas tour every three years so that all boys get a chance to go on one," said Parker.

For now, though, all eyes are on a challenging trip to Ballymena.

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