AT the turn of the year, fresh from the hurt of a narrow Danske Bank Ulster Schools Cup first round exit at the hand of Carrickfergus Grammar, Strabane Academy thumped Wellington College 57-0 in their opening Schools’ Trophy clash.
Less than a year later, the two schools will meet once more at Liskey Road, but this time in the Schools’ Cup proper, not the subsidiary competition.
Another change to proceedings this time around will be the personnel on each team. Strabane, for example, has lost no fewer than eight members of a team regarded as its ‘golden generation’, including David Shaw, who is a member of Queen’s under-20 side and Ralph Mealiff who is now playing for Ballynahinch seconds.
And while the loss of such quality has been hard to replace for a relatively small school in rugby terms, with exciting flanker Matthew Kelly unavailable due to an ACL injury, it’s lack of numbers that is Strabane’s biggest foe.
However, although they may not have strength in quantity, they still enjoy plenty of quality in their small 20-man squad, with the likes of explosive outhalf Jamie Brown, who played for Finn Harps during the summer, inside centre Reuben Orr, hooker Finn Hempton and second row Jason Henderson looking more than capable of playing at a high level.
And with the effervescence of head coach, Niall McDonnell, allied with his backroom staff of Steve Sargent, Stephen Smyth and Adam Bratton, there is a core of quality that could well take this current squad further in the tournament than the school has gone before.
“We have a crop coming through, a good core of Year 12s coming through, who are key players for us,” beamed McDonnell, who despite admitting they have had a ‘fragmented’ season due to their lack of numbers, has been buoyed by performances against Limavady Grammar and Omagh Academy.
Against the Roesiders, Strabane really should have won, but against Omagh, in what was essentially a training exercise, McDonnell’s lads gave ‘a good account of themselves’, ‘competed for large periods’, and produced plenty of ‘positives’.
On the back of those games and having come from 17-0 down to beat Wellington earlier in the year, confidence is growing at the Liskey Road and with a dedicated work ethic throughout their squad, McDonnell believes his team can get past Wellington and reach round two.
“You end up repeating yourself but every year they take it another step,” he observed.
“When you know you’re up against it the easiest thing in the world is to say ‘what’s the point’, but these lads don’t. Their work ethic is impressive, they are very unassuming and modest and hard working group.
“As it stands we can continue to compete at the level we’re at, which is round one, and we’ll give a good account of ourselves if we get to round two or even in the Trophy.”
Kick-off tomorrow is 11am at Liskey Road.