Schools' Cup: Ballyclare HS must not get carried away with knock-out stage in sight, says coach
Tomorrow morning promises to be a tense one as the Danske Bank Schools' Cup group stages reach their final round of games.
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Ten schools go through to the knockout stages and eight places are up for grabs, Friends' School Lisburn already having won Group A and Bangor Grammar Group B.
That leaves the remaining four group winners to be decided along with the four best runners-up to go forward to the draw for the last-16 which is due to take place in the New Year when the six schools who have not been part of the group process - holders Methodist College, RBAI, Campbell College, Wallace High School, Armagh Royal and Ballymena Academy - all come on board.
With group leaders Sullivan Upper, Coleraine Grammar and Enniskillen Royal Grammar all expected to come out on top in their games, the most interesting battle will be in Group C where Ballyclare High School have a chance to advance from second to win the pool which is clear-cut if they defeat Lurgan College with a bonus point.
Ballyclare are four behind existing leaders Cambridge House, who lost at Omagh Academy in midweek.
There will also be a nervy enough race to fill the four places for the best runners-up which could come down to points differential.
Ballyclare are playing down the fact that they have a decent shot at now winning Group C thanks to Cambridge House losing 7-0 at Omagh.
A maximum-pointer from the visit of Lurgan College will get Ballyclare there with a point to spare and a non-bonus win should also be enough due to the east Antrim school's healthier points differential.
Ballyclare tripped up in round two by narrowly losing at Cambridge House but can now redeem themselves with a home win over Lurgan.
Coach Mike McKeever was not prepared to up the ante and demand that his squad go gung-ho to nail the five points. Instead, he was keen to emphasise the fundamental need to just win the game first and foremost.
"The aim for the boys has to be performance-driven," said McKeever.
"The aim is to go out to get a win and then if the bonus win comes from that then that's fantastic."
They do head into tomorrow with some decent form behind them which is also helpful.
"The boys had a great performance against Bangor Grammar two weekends ago and everything also went to plan against Dalriada last weekend," said McKeever. "We're just hoping they build on from that."
And with a final reference to the Cambridge House loss, he said: "From your losses you learn and you move on.
"It will be exciting now to get this game (against Lurgan) played and see what happens next."
Ballyclare have a clean bill of health for tomorrow before taking on a Lurgan side who have not won their previous two group matches.
Skipper Jack Gamble is a key operator in the back-row and the very heartbeat of the side with fellow forwards Adam Barron and Ian Warren also having good seasons.
Behind the scrum, fifth-former Alex Darra is an exciting prospect who can play out-half or full-back.
As for the first-time league structure, McKeever is a proponent of this way of playing out the early stages and though he accepts that alterations might be made in the New Year review, he feels that the advantages of having group games outweigh any possible negatives.
"From our point of view, you want to qualify for the Schools' Cup and you also want to reflect on your group games to see that it's given you more of a competitive edge and then put you in a more comfortable position for your (knockout) round one match," he said.
"Regardless of whether it's the Cup or the subsidiary competition after Christmas, the knowledge you have gained and the experiences you have gained from the group stages should make you better off."
Meanwhile, the Group B game between Foyle College and Bangor Grammar has been conceded by the north west school.
Bangor were awarded four points to win the group and advance to the last-16 and the knockout stages.
Group A: Dromore v Friends', Limavady v Rainey.
Group B: Down HS v Regent.
Group C: Ballyclare HS v Lurgan.
Group D: Grosvenor v Dalriada, Strabane v Sullivan.
Group E: BRA v Banbridge, Coleraine Grammar v Belfast HS.
Group F: Portadown College v Royal School Dungannon, Larne GS v Enniskillen Royal GS.