Schools' Cup revamped to include group stage as coaches give the thumbs up
The newly-restructured Danske Bank Ulster Schools' Cup was formally revealed yesterday, with group stages now becoming part of the long-established competition, and the overall response of those involved in the new leagues was positive from both coaches and players regarding the new look for the 143-year-old contest.
Rugby round up Newsletter
Though the new format for this season's competition was revealed last May, this was the first time the schools had come together since the announcement of what amounts to a radical change for the game at this level in Ulster.
Starting on Saturday week, the competition will revert to group stages for all but six Tier One squads - who come in at the traditional knockout stages in January - with 24 schools deemed to be Tier Two and Three sides being split into six groups with four teams in each.
The restructure has been designed to bring more meaningful and competitive rugby for Tier Two and Three sides, with the six group winners and four best runners-up, 10 in total, then progressing to the more familiar knockout phase which will be made up of 16 teams, the top six Tier One schools now becoming involved.
The groups will see each school play just three games - the dates being on October 19, November 16 and December 7 - in deciding who then advances to the last-16 in January.
The process is under review, with potential movement between the tiers, including the top six in Tier One being built-in to the change in approach.
The Tier One sides who will sit out this stage are, unsurprisingly, the big three Belfast sides - holders Methodist College, last year's beaten finalists Campbell College and RBAI - as well as Royal School Armagh, Wallace High School and Ballymena Academy.
The six groups are a mix of Tier Two and Three teams, and the 14 who fail to make it through will then be distributed to the already existing subsidiary competitions.
Mike McKeever is head of rugby at Ballyclare High School (who are in Group C with Cambridge House, Lurgan College and Omagh Academy) and sounded positive over the new plan.
"From Ballyclare High School's point of view I'm excited about it, it's something new and it's great to be a part of it," he said.
"And the boys are looking forward to having these competitive matches before Christmas.
"I believe it's exciting to develop the competition in different ways. You've got to explore and be smarter about how you develop the game."
While McKeever admits that having been given two home games from the three group outings will be advantageous for Ballyclare, he would have no issue with the groups having home and away ties.
"It would be great if you had your six matches, but I suppose you've got to start somewhere," he said. "As ever, there are pros and cons, but (the restructure) is what is best for development."
Bangor Grammar's Rhys Botha agreed that, on the whole, the change is a good thing.
"(The restructure) is competitive and gives some of the not so big teams something to really play for. It also gives everyone a chance to either improve on what went right or try to rectify what went wrong on any of the Saturdays," he said.
"It's competitive, which means that results are all-important for progressing to the next stages.
"It's only three games, but I suppose that's something that might be looked at."
As for those in the top six, who sit this out to await the 10 qualifying teams, Campbell College's Johnny Cupitt again, broadly, welcomed the change.
"I think it's a good idea but, from purely a selfish perspective, fixtures we would have had before against some of these schools are now lost," he said.
"So it's been a wee bit of a rejig for us but from the overall schools' perspective I think it's an exciting set-up to have and works for everybody."
Cupitt also reckons that those schools who do make it to the Cup's last-16 should be able to put the less battle-hardened top six under pressure as a result of the competitive group games.
All change then.