Ulster recruit school stars for Academy fast-tracking
Danske Bank Schools' Cup hat-trick-winning heroes Michael Lowry and James Hume have taken their first steps to becoming stars of the future after being included in the Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy squad.
The former Royal Belfast Academical Institution pupils, who were part of Dan Soper's trio of winning Schools' Cup squads, have been brought into the Ulster Academy straight out of school and are part of a new intake of 10 players identified as having what it takes by Academy head coach Kieran Campbell.
Lowry skippered Inst to their third straight Schools' Cup title last St Patrick's Day and the 18-year-old out-half was subsequently named Ulster Schools' Player of the Year at the province's end-of-season awards.
The 18-year-old out-half will still be closely associated with his former school coach Soper, as Lowry will be playing his club rugby at Banbridge - as will strong-running centre Hume, who also has place-kicking as part of his considerable armoury.
Other leavers who have been recruited by the Academy straight from their schools are prop Tom O'Toole (ex-Campbell College), lock or back-rower Matthew Dalton (ex-BRA) and hooker Alexander Clarke (ex-Ballymena Academy and son of former Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke).
While O'Toole will join Lowry and Hume to play his club rugby at Banbridge, Clarke has been assigned to Queen's University and Dalton to Malone.
Other new entrants who have recently completed their school studies are flanker Joe Dunleavy (who leaves City of Derry for Malone) and Rainey Old Boys' lock John McCusker.
The Academy's 10 new faces are completed by lock Jack Regan, who hails from Co Offaly, former Ireland U20 No.8 and Dublin native Greg Jones and ex-Dublin University prop Eric O'Sullivan, who featured for Ulster 'A' last season.
The chances of being fast-tracked towards the Ulster senior side and bagging an upgraded contract are reasonably healthy with six of last year's squad now having graduated to be part of Director of Rugby Les Kiss' roster.
David Busby, Aaron Cairns, Ross Kane, Rob Lyttle, Jack Owens and Tommy O'Hagan have all taken the next step beyond the Academy with only the latter yet to win a senior cap in an Ulster shirt.
Reacting to the new squad, Academy coach Campbell said: "The ultimate goal is that these lads will go on to play senior rugby for Ulster and Ireland.
"And it is gratifying to see so many players in our pathway earn international recognition.
"Last year we had 26 players wear the Ireland jersey at either U18, U19 or U20 level, our highest ever total for a season."
Ulster Director of Rugby Kiss also said that: "The synergy between the senior team and the Academy very much a critical element of the player development pathway.
"To watch the likes of Rob Lyttle and Ross Kane seamlessly make the transition into the senior team and earn a significant number of caps throughout the season is testament to the work being done. The fact that all six are home-grown players is even more pleasing."
Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy squad: Rory Butler, centre Year 2; Alexander Clarke, hooker, Year one; Peter Cooper, prop, Year 3; Angus Curtis, out-half, Year 2; Matthew Dalton, lock/back-rower, Year 1; Joe Dunleavy, flanker, Year 1; Aaron Hall, back-row, Year 2; James Hume, centre, Year 1; Greg Jones, number eight, Year 1; Michael Lowry, out-half, Year 1; Adam McBurney, hooker, Year 2; Zack McCall, hooker, ,Year 2; John McCusker, lock, Year 1; Eric O'Sullivan, prop, Year 1; Tom O'Toole, prop, Year 1; Marcus Rea, back row, Year 2, Jack Regan, lock, Year 1, Jonathan Stewart, scrum-half, Year 2, Nick Timoney, back row, Year 3.