RBAI emerged victorious in Thursday’s Schools’ Cup Final on the back of a tenacious defensive effort in a second half where Campbell had an overwhelming majority of territory and possession. Inst scrambled on numerous occasions to keep the East Belfast school from crossing their line, and Campbell were unable to find answers with ball in hand. They will perhaps rue the lack of a front-line goalkicker in their starting 15, as Inst’s aggressive approach at the breakdown – effective in spoiling the opposition’s opportunities for quick ball for much of the match – at times strayed into indiscipline, and led to a high second-half penalty count which Campbell were unable to exploit.
The most impressive attacking play seen in the match came from the RBAI backs in the first half. From set-piece they often employed outside centre James Hume at first receiver where he was able to attract defenders and feed his fly-half Michael Lowry, who looking dangerous receiving the ball flat from his midfield partner and attacking the gain line. On early kick returns too they looked to spread the ball wide to a back three who had been in good try-scoring form throughout the Cup campaign. Fullback Joe Finnegan impressed with a couple of early forays with ball in hand, and was an assured presence at the back throughout: the penultimate year student, who hails from a gaelic football background, read play well and made some good tackles sweeping behind the defensive line, and was a useful secondary kicking option out of hand. The Inst forwards did a good job of disrupting Campbell’s ball at the breakdown, and their back row marked Ulster U18 no. 8 Jack Barry-Glendinning out of the game in the first half: the dangerous ball-carrier was chopped down by the black and yellow defence before he could build momentum, and in the first half was unable to have the same impact as in the semi-final against Dalriada. Neil Saulters threw well to the tail at the lineout and provided his back line with a good platform, while their defensive jumpers did well to cause the Campbell unit problems.
Campbell came out in the second half and attempted to inject more pace into the game, led by scrum-half Malcolm Corry who threatened from a couple of quickly-tapped penalties. However, once they became established in the Inst 22 – where they were stationed for much of the second 35 minutes – they were unable to play at the same tempo and became mired in phase after phase of one-out runners, which Inst defended manfully. Flanker John Crowther missed an early attempt at goal in the second period, and from that point on they opted to kick the ball to the corner from penalties won. Barry-Glendinning was able to have more of an influence on the game as it progressed, but they were unable to convert the pressure they exerted into points on the scoreboard. Desperation grew, and with the game’s final play a wild pass was intercepted by Hume, who ran 50 metres to score beneath the posts and secure RBAI’s retention of the trophy.
All the more impressive is the fact that 8 of Inst’s starting 15 return to school next year, including Ulster U18 representatives Callum Reid (a loosehead prop), Lowry, Hume and Finnegan alongside scrum-half Rhys O’Donnell, who has also been in camp with Irish Schools this year. They will hope to emulate the historic Methodist College side of 2012-14 next season when they go for their third consecutive Cup victory.
Player to watch: RBAI
Outside centre James Hume was the player on the winning side who showed the most potential. The Lower 6th student – who will be involved with Ireland U18 in the upcoming 5 Nations tournament – was very impressive in attack: he is a strong runner with ball in hand, and couples his power with excellent footwork into contact and handling skills. On two occasions early in the first half he was able to make difficult offloads out of the tackle to his support runners, and when he was used at first receiver off set-piece he showed some deft passing ability to put players into space. One of his most impressive sequences was a play in which he tracked scrum-half O’Donnell, before receiving a sublime offload out the back door and breaking through: Hume began his run behind the ruck, and O’Donnell dragged the Campbell ruck defenders wide before slipping the ball back inside and sending the centre through the hole. After an early line break by Campbell flanker Jamie Macartney on his inside he formed an incredibly solid defensive partnership in midfield with the tireless Ben McGavock, using his physical capabilities well to dominate the contact area. On occasion he showed a tendency to drift early and trust his inside defender perhaps too readily – a tendency which resulted in that early linebreak – but the effect of this characteristic should diminish as he progresses through the age-group levels. Hume was also the Belfast school’s primary kicker out of hand and at goal, and made some impressive contributions in both facets. While he kicked a couple of restarts into touch on the full, he helped Inst exit well on a few occasions in the first half; in attack, he contributed a deft left-footed grubber which put the Campbell fullback under pressure. His successful penalty to end the first half was a fantastic strike off the tee: from beyond the Campbell 10m line he cleared the posts with metres to spare.
Player to watch: Campbell College
On the Campbell side, 115kg tighthead prop Tom O’Toole – Irish-born, but a member of the Queensland Reds academy before moving to Belfast last year – received a lot of attention in the build-up, and was the losing side’s most impressive player. At the scrum he faced a good battle with Inst’s Reid, and both props showed impressive body position in a tough set-piece contest. He was used as a primary ball-carrier both in phase play and off lineout ball, and attracted numerous defenders every time he took the ball into contact. His carries were consistently positive, and he also showed good ability as a link-player – both his passes before and offloads after contact were accurate. At the attacking breakdown, he again showed good body position and easily the most powerful clear-out on either side. O’Toole also represented Ulster U18 at the beginning of the season, and was involved the Irish Schools’ camp over Christmas; another player in his penultimate year of schoolboy rugby, he is undoubtedly one to watch in the underage representative ranks over the next couple of years.