STRABANE Academy’s rugby first team are returning to the scene of a crime tomorrow as they not only target a place in the third round of the Danske Bank Schools’ Cup, but also aim to exorcise the ghosts of last year’s missed opportunity.
In late January of 2018, the team produced a stuttering performance at Belfast High in the quarter-final of the Schools’ Trophy, falling to a disappointing 20-11 defeat, which brought a frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling end to the team regarded as the Academy’s ‘Golden Generation’.
Having seen that team fail to produced the level of performance they had hoped on that day, this current crop of Academy players has undertaken training sessions during the Christmas holidays to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
“We have a really small squad and we had the majority of the members at each session, which were done at a really high intensity and were very much player led,” explained PE teacher and team coach, Niall McDonnell.
“It was player driven, which is fantastic because it shows what it means to them.
“I’m delighted with their efforts over Christmas and we’re looking forward to it, but they seem to be quite calm, no-one’s getting too excited about it.
“They have nothing to lose and ultimately I just want the boys to give a good account of themselves, play to the best of their ability and control what they can control.
“I just want them to come off the pitch knowing there is nothing more they could have done and if they win, fantastic.”
An aspect of life the Academy players and staff can’t control is their lack of numbers and with Matthew Kelly and influential scumhalf, Harry McCrossan, who kicked them past Wellington College and into the second round, both missing, McDonnell knows they face a tough ask at the weekend.
Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s encounter on the shores of Belfast Lough, the former Ireland international cricketer is immensely proud of his players.
“I don’t think they appreciate the magnitude of the achievement of a school with 200 boys to go and compete against the likes of Wellington, who are previous Schools’ Cup winners as Annadale Grammar School [in 1958] as it was, but who have 8 or 900 kids, with about 450 boys, which is double our numbers,” he explained.
“If you brought the best coaches down to do my job, they’d have the same goal of just getting through the first round because of the numbers we have. For example, if we lost our front row, we couldn’t field and no other school has that issue.
“It’s a phenomenal achievement, but I don’t think the boys appreciate that, they just want to challenge themselves, which is quite refreshing in the convenience, modern era, the throw away society, that these guys are up for the challenge.
“It’s about performance, it’s about personal pride and ultimately, come Saturday, they have surpassed last year,” he concluded.