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Schools' Cup semi-final: Willie Faloon has driven up Royal School Armagh's standards, says grateful Parker


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Last time: Royal School Armagh players celebrate their win over RBAI in the 2018 Schools’ Cup semi-final

Last time: Royal School Armagh players celebrate their win over RBAI in the 2018 Schools’ Cup semi-final

Stephen Hamilton

Last time: Royal School Armagh players celebrate their win over RBAI in the 2018 Schools’ Cup semi-final

The first finalist of the Danske Bank Schools' Cup will be determined today when RBAI take on Royal School Armagh in this year's opening semi-final at Kingspan Stadium (2.30pm).

The last-four clash is an eagerly-anticipated rematch of the 2018 Schools' Cup semi-final, which Armagh won 26-22 on their way to finishing runner-up to Campbell College.

Since then, Armagh have gone on to establish themselves as regulars at the top table of schools' rugby, this being their third consecutive semi-final appearance under the leadership of coaches Chris Parker and former Ulster flanker Willie Faloon.

This season's semi-final run has been hugely impressive and has seen them comfortably beat Campbell College in the last-16 and edge past Ballymena Academy in the quarters.

Ahead of today's tie, Parker has hailed coaching partner Faloon for the work he has done to bring consistent success to the school.

"Willie deserves all the credit, he works across all the age groups with all the boys. He's got participation levels up across the entire school, which then feeds into the senior squad," said Parker, who also works alongside Faloon at City of Armagh.

"If we have more guys available and training then it gives us more options. And the guys have been incredible, they're so coachable, they take on board what you're saying. They sacrifice a lot, so for them to get an occasion like this, it makes it all worthwhile."

Armagh have retained the majority of the squad that reached the semi-finals last year, with their threats coming from lock Jayson Denley and No.8 Ryan Finlay in the pack, with out-half Romaine Morrow the playmaker as the Royal School look for their first Schools' Cup title since 2004.

"This is why the guys play rugby, for moments like this, getting to play at Kingspan with their mates. Hopefully we can do ourselves justice," added Parker.

"We've had two good hit-outs and that will stand us in good stead. It's been challenging, it's been physical, but that's only left us in a good place."

As for RBAI, they have undergone some changes behind the scenes as director of rugby Dan Soper has since moved on to join the Ulster senior team and has been replaced by Jason Morgan.

The pressure on the school, given they have won 32 Schools' Cup titles - second only to Belfast rivals Methodist College - has not changed, however, and Morgan believes he has a mature team that will be able to cope with the pressure that comes with donning the yellow and black jersey.

"Our boys play under a lot of expectation, which can be good, but it can also put you under a lot of pressure," said the coach.

"That's set us up well for going to the Kingspan because we've looked at the pressures we're facing. I think we've got a group who can block that out and put a focus on the important things.

"It'll be new for a lot of boys but it's something they'll rise to and embrace, and we've put a focus on trying to feed off it."

RBAI's dangers will likely come from the lethal centre duo of Jude Postlethwaite and Oscar Lowe, the physical abilities of lock Alex Weir and the leadership of hooker Rory Adair, whose brother Angus captained the side last year.

On the face of it, the Belfast school have had an easy run to the semis, putting up a combined 99 points on BRA and Friends' in reaching the final four, but Morgan believes his side have still taken a lot from the two fixtures.

He added: "We're well prepared. The guys are in a good bit of form at the minute. We have a lot of respect for Armagh but we can't wait to get started."

Belfast Telegraph