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Schools' Cup semi-final: Bowe and Faloon recall inspirational McCall as Armagh look to 2004 as a spur



Tragic loss: John McCall lifts the Schools’ Cup with Armagh in 2004, just 10 days before his sad loss on Ireland U19 duty

Tragic loss: John McCall lifts the Schools’ Cup with Armagh in 2004, just 10 days before his sad loss on Ireland U19 duty

Tragic loss: John McCall lifts the Schools’ Cup with Armagh in 2004, just 10 days before his sad loss on Ireland U19 duty

One game away from the Danske Bank Schools' Cup final, Royal School Armagh's young players will no doubt be aware of their school's proud history in this competition as they get set for their last-four tie with three-in-a-row champions RBAI this afternoon (2.30pm kick-off).

Nine-times winners of this competition, they last lifted the trophy in 2004 and when they look back at the team photo from that day, they will no doubt be aware too that the smiling, flame-haired boy at the centre of it all lived for just another 10 days.

Fourteen years ago this month, John McCall, the young man who dreamed of being an architect but who at the time was widely regarded as a future Ulster openside, died on a far-flung pitch in South Africa while representing Ireland in the Under-19 World Cup.

Cardiac arrest was the cause, a reminder of how fleeting life can be.

With leadership qualities in abundance, McCall had been nicknamed 'Captain Fantastic' by his team-mates, who to this day are remembered as an unusually tightly-knit squad who lived in each other's pockets far beyond the rugby field.

Their achievement - they overcame the traditional powerhouses and huge playing numbers of Inst, Methody and Ballymena before beating Campbell in the St Patrick's Day showpiece - remains one of the great Schools' Cup stories of the modern day, and McCall was at the centre of it all.

A seven who could also play from the base of the scrum, he enjoyed a friendly rivalry with the other outstanding back-row talent of his age group, future Lion Stephen Ferris.

Wearing green, they were deployed in tandem against New Zealand's 'Baby Blacks' at the ABSA Stadium in Durban on March 27, 2004, the last game McCall would ever play.

He had played on his school's first XV as a fifth year in 2002, an outfit that had been fancied to break the two-decade-long drought for the top prize and bring them level with Coleraine AI as the competition's most successful side outside of Belfast's traditional 'Big Three'.

It was a squad that could deploy Gareth Steenson at 10 and Tommy Bowe at full-back, but ultimately suffered a quarter-final upset at the hands of Wallace, for whom Chris Henry scored two tries that day.

Bowe recalled: "John was a very dedicated sort of player. He was a guy who would put his body on the line. If the team was doing hill-sprints, he would be the one at the front leading it.

"Doing that, other people followed him, and it was no surprise he was captain of a tight-knit squad and when he played with us, he fitted in really well too.

"We were two years ahead of that team that won and we knew it was a strong group and the school was going well."

Unlike the side of Bowe's vintage, there was only one player of the victorious squad who forged a career in the professional game, Willie Faloon going on to represent Ulster in two spells either side of a sojourn in Connacht.

And things will come full circle this afternoon as he coaches the RS Armagh side that will take on RBAI in Kingspan Stadium.

The 31-year-old was one of the younger members of the side back in '04 and can still recall the day that McCall extinguished any doubts he had over winning the trophy.

"I still remember that moment very vividly," he said. "We played Methody, Inst, Ballymena and Campbell that year who were all contenders.

"I remember having my own doubts and John putting those out of my head fairly quickly in no uncertain terms as we walked to class.

"His leadership brought us on a pile. Off and on the field we were very close, and still are to this day."

Faloon can see similarities with that group and the one he leads into battle today, and he has drawn on some of his own memories for motivation this week.

"It's great to get there again. I've touched on it already but this is their opportunity. RBAI haven't been beaten this year, and won it three times in a row, so they are massive favourites but there's pressure with that.

"It's up to our players now to go and make some memories."

Belfast Telegraph