Schools' Cup semi-final: No old pals act as Methody and Campbell eye decider
There may be much hand-wringing over the future of Ulster Rugby at present, but a much-hoped-for next generation will be on display at Kingspan Stadium over the next two afternoons.
Old rivals Campbell College and Methodist College go head-to-head once again in the first of the Danske Bank Schools' Cup semi-finals at 2.30pm today, with the other last-four tie, Royal School Armagh versus champions RBAI, to be played tomorrow after its original date yesterday became impossible due to the inclement weather.
The Campbell side are captained by John McKee, the loosehead prop who led Ulster Under-18s to a rare Inter-provincial Championship over the summer.
Centre Ben Power and lock Jack Stinson were also a part of the group and, with Methody having been bulk suppliers to that same victorious squad, it could well be a case of friends reunited at the Kingspan today.
Ethan McIlroy, who has amassed the most points for his side this season, Ben Crangle, Kevin McNaboe, Thomas Armstrong, Robbie Armstrong and Chris Larmour all played their part in the long sought after title, with Crangle and McNaboe having already been part of Ireland camps in the same age-grade.
The head-to-head battles between players who were team-mates in the white jersey before the school year began adds an interesting dynamic to today's proceedings, as noted by Campbell team manager John McKinney.
"It's funny because I could sit here and tell you about all the threats that we have and who our dangerous players are, but because so many of them played together, Methody will be well aware of that already," he said.
Campbell have been boosted by the addition of ex-Ulster head coach Neil Doak to the school this season in addition to his duties at Queen's University, while they can still call on the experience of former Ireland No.8 Brian Robinson, who led them to the final as recently as 2016.
They lost that day, beaten by Belfast rivals RBAI who picked up the second of their three straight titles, and haven't won the competition since a 2011 squad featuring Chris Farrell secured the trophy.
While Methody are laden with representative talent, Campbell come into today's contest battle-tested. In their two cup games this season they have overcome Dalriada and more recently Ballymena Academy.
While the 50-0 thumping handed out to the Ballymoney school won't have looked particularly competitive on paper, the game broke open only after the turn and their last-eight tie with Ballymena was the most competitive quarter-final.
A 12-10 triumph came courtesy of tries from Power and Will Davies, with Conor Rankin's conversion of the latter proving the only difference between the sides.
"It's a cliché, but there's no substitute for experience," said McKinney. "We've had to come through two very tough games. Dalriada may not have looked like a particularly useful fixture but they played well on the day, and Ballymena are a very good side.
"We won't be thinking of the final at all, what's ahead of us is Methody in the semi-finals."
Methody, who are still coached by the hugely successful Nicky Wells, have reached this stage courtesy of wins over Bangor and Coleraine.
Also at Kingspan Stadium, the draw for the Riverrock Towns Cup semi-finals took place yesterday afternoon.
City of Armagh, who at present are the holders of the Senior Cup, the Junior Cup and the Stevenson Shield, will be hoping their Seconds can bring yet more silverware back to the Palace Grounds come Easter Monday but they will first have to overcome Ballyclare.
While Armagh have the benefit of a home tie, Ballyclare are an in-form side who are battling it out with Instonians for the Kukri Championship and a shot at playing All-Ireland League rugby next season.
In the other last-four clash, Portadown will host to fellow Kukri Championship side Carrickfergus.