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Schools' Cup: Grosvenor out to progress from early start

 

By Michael Sadlier

The immediate goal is to reach the Danske Bank Schools' Cup third round, and Grosvenor Grammar will be hoping that this aim, along with the added fillip of home advantage, will get them there when they meet Antrim Grammar tomorrow morning (kick-off 10.30am).

Though the east Belfast school are certainly not a powerhouse when it comes to Schools' Cup rugby - they have won the trophy just the once, and that was back in 1983 - they do possess a driving ambition to progress rather than be content with competing more effectively in the subsidiary competitions.

Last year's dramatic third round tie against Bangor Grammar - which was won 11-10 - certainly showed they possess an appetite for success before Grosvenor made their exit in the fourth round.

This time around, though, the squad - coached by PE teacher Andrew Gibson - have had to deal with the inevitable departures from last year's side along with an indifferent start to their season which has, admittedly, recently been turned around.

A useful win over a Malone side before Christmas was followed up by a respectable showing in defeat to Down High School, and there has been plenty to encourage coach Gibson.

"It's been heading in the right direction after being very hit and miss earlier in the season through injuries and unavailability," said Gibson.

"We found it difficult to get momentum as we really didn't have the same team out two weeks in a row.

"We have lost a lot of Upper Sixth boys who played in key positions last year and it's meant a lot of reshuffling, and boys learning new roles, but the form has turned around recently.

"We're in (the Schools' Cup) earlier than last year, which I suppose is reflective of a poor season, but in terms of ambition we always want to win our first cup match whatever round we come in at," added Gibson.

Playing Antrim Grammar, though, is a step into unfamiliar territory as the schools have not met this season.

"(Antrim) are not on our fixture list but coming to us at home makes us a different and hopefully more difficult prospect," he said.

"We also get great support and have a good playing surface and that should all be in our favour.

"Antrim will definitely be a stern test but we feel we're strong enough to get into the third round.

"And that's where we want to be," stated Gibson, who is also a former pupil.

Losing seven players from last year's team comes with the territory, with the departures hitting particularly hard in the backline, but Grosvenor have effectively dealt with it and Gibson is fairly confident that the new players have settled into the groove.

"We're getting boys up to speed in those positions this season," he said of rebuilding the backline.

"But I think we've got our combinations right now and the attacking play in recent weeks has been pretty effective."

Jos McConkey is a strong-running out-half, who has been converted from centre, and he brings leadership to the backline where Adam Moore has slotted in at full-back having come into the side as a fifth former.

But Grosvenor's pack is where they have most of their notable weaponry, and skipper Ben Davies is a hugely experienced number eight who is now in his third season on the first team.

Second row Ewan Renfrew is the main target man out of touch, while hooker Isaac Skillen's all-round play is another asset and powerful prop James McMaster is on the books for Ulster U17s.

While former Ulster U20s player Gibson heads the coaching team and specialises in back play, he has the assistance of fellow teacher Gary Hunter and Michael Smyth with the forwards, while Mitch McComb and David McLaughlin - the latter three from Grosvenor Rugby Club - deal with the seconds.

And the work being done further down the school certainly offers hope for the future with Grosvenor's Medallion and U-14 sides having strong seasons.

The numbers playing the game throughout the school are reasonably encouraging as well with up to 160 pupils involved across the year groups.

Though they have had reasonable showings in the subsidiary cup competitions - Grosvenor lost the Bowl final to the then Portora two years ago - Gibson is hopeful that this might be a good year in the main event.

"We'd love to get to the fourth round but let's deal with this one (Antrim) first and see how we go," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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