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Schools' Cup final captains determined to claim Kingspan joy

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Two men who are no strangers to Kingspan Stadium will be back at the home of Ulster Rugby today as they take their teams into the Danske Bank Schools' Cup final, both hoping to end long barren spells (3pm kick-off).

Former Ulster and Connacht flanker Willie Faloon has led Royal School Armagh to their first final since 2004, back when he himself was a pupil and a player at the school, while the province's ex-head coach Neil Doak is calling the shots for Campbell College before taking up a role with Worcester Warriors in the English Premiership next season.

While the east Belfast school's own wait for the trophy isn't quite as lengthy as their opponents', last lifting the top prize in 2011, for a school of their previous successes seven years can seem a lifetime.

Captain John McKee, who led the Ulster Under-18s to an inter-provincial title over the summer, was still in primary school when a side that contained Irish international Chris Farrell and Connacht winger Rory Scholes beat RBAI for their 23rd outright victory.

Even back then, the loosehead prop who learned his rugby at Ards RFC minis knew he wanted to follow in their footsteps.

"I know John Creighton, who was the captain that year, as he's a good friend of our family. I remember watching him make his speech at the end and thinking that I'd love to be doing the same one day," said McKee.

"Thinking about winning the trophy, lifting it for my team, it pops into your head all the time but you can't get ahead of yourself.

"It's a great thought but Armagh are a top-quality side. We're confident but we have to do the right things, stick to the systems if we're to lift the trophy."

McKee, who is studying English, sports science and drama at A-Level, is one player who has actually been on this stage before. He was a substitute when Campbell reached the final two years ago only to be undone by a late try from RBAI scored by now Ireland Under-20 international James Hume. Despite the bitter disappointment, it was an occasion to remember.

"It was a huge game and I'm sure it'll be much the same (today)," he said. "I just remember the atmosphere, it was great, especially with it being a Belfast derby.

"I said to myself when we lost that I wanted to be back before I left school so now we just need to finish the job.

"There's been a good buzz round the school again and you can't walk round the corridor without being congratulated.

"We've a really tight group and we've a really positive attitude. When things weren't going well we had some great talks and you can see that now. Armagh beat us earlier in the season but I think we've come on a lot since then."

While Armagh will have one former Ulster player in the coaching box, a current star is sure to be watching on as a supporter, past pupil Tommy Bowe.

The two-time Lion and an all-time Irish great is even more of an inspiration to current captain Jack Treanor than most. Like Bowe, Treanor is a Monaghan native who grew up playing rugby for the town as well as Gaelic football in his parish.

"I started playing at four or five," recalled the hooker whose brother Gerard was recently playing for Irish Universities.

"I've always been back and forth between the sports, playing for Monaghan in the winter and then turning out for Tyholland for the summers.

"I've always prioritised rugby but I do enjoy the chance to play Gaelic when I can. There's a lot of transferable skills too. If you're good at one, there's a fair chance that you'll be good at the other I think. It's great to see rugby growing in places like in Monaghan and Donegal."

Boarding in Armagh five days a week, Treanor knows his side aren't widely tipped to win today, but Campbell being favourites is an idea he's fine with.

"We always believed we could do big things," he said. "We knew nobody expected us to beat Inst in the semi-final but it was the same against Wallace in the quarters. We're quite happy to be underdogs, that suits us just fine."

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