Ballymena Academy are not underdogs against RBAI in Schools Cup final says coach John Nicholl

Ballymena Academy celebrate their Schools cup semi final win over Sullivan Upper
Picture: Pacemaker
Ballymena Academy celebrate their Schools cup semi final win over Sullivan Upper Picture: Pacemaker

Ballymena Academy Director of Rugby, John Nicholl, is relishing the chance to be the first school to take the Ulster Schools Cup out of Belfast in 14 years, when they take on current holders Royal Belfast Academical Institution on Monday at Ulster’s home of rugby, the Kingspan Stadium.

In a competition which has been traditionally dominated by several Belfast schools over its 147-year history, Ballymena will return to the decider for the 10th time in the school’s history, having last won the Cup in 2010.

Their opponents, RBAI, have reached the final 58 times, second only to fellow Belfast school, Methodist College, who have reached the final 65 times.

Head coach John Nicholl heaped praise on his side for reaching the final thanks to a convincing 25-14 semi-final victory over Sullivan Upper, but he is quick to add that his side have every intention of going one step further and lifting the trophy.

“It’s brilliant to reach the final - there’s a great buzz about the school and the guys are really looking forward to it,” explains Nicholl.

“They have had good success against RBAI over the past number of years including having beaten them at 1st XV level, so we’re not going into it as massive underdogs, we’re going in as equals.”

“RBAI have guys in their squad who won it last year, so they have experience of the day of the final. Our guys might not be just as used to the occasion, the noise and the numbers of spectators.

“However, the guys are confident with the way they speak and their feelings towards the game which gives me a great deal of confidence as well.”

The route to the final has not been easy, with Ballymena having faced a tough introduction to the tournament against dark horses Belfast Royal Academy followed by a stern test against a  Regent House side coached by former Ulster head coach Brian McLoughlin.

Ballymena’s semi-final win over Sullivan demonstrated a well drilled side with a dominant set-piece including a devastating rolling maul.

Ulster’s Alan O'Connor has come on board to help Ballymena Academy as they prepare for Monday's Schools Cup final against RBAI
Ulster’s Alan O'Connor has come on board to help Ballymena Academy as they prepare for Monday's Schools Cup final against RBAI

Nicholl gives credit to Ulster duo Alan O’Connor and Andrew Warwick who have come on board to lend their technical expertise as part of the coaching set-up.

“When I came into this role I wanted to achieve the right environment for the boys and part of that was bringing in some technical coaches,” Nicholl explains.

“Andy Warwick was the first guy I called as we had worked together when I was head coach of Ballymena Rugby Club and he has committed his time and expertise to helping our forwards along with Alan O’Connor.

“Al has helped push the boys on to the next level, drives high standards and has been first class in helping inspire the boys.

“Another past pupil who has come in is Ulster centre Luke Marshall who has helped with the backs.

“There are six past pupils of the school currently in the Ulster squad and to have a couple of these guys come in with their experience playing at the top level to help us has been amazing for a country school like ours.”

RBAI advanced to the final with a comfortable win over Wallace High and will be hoping to secure back-to-back Schools Cup titles. Inst have won four of the last seven finals played and have several members of the squad carrying with them experience of the big occasion.

“RBAI and some of the other Belfast schools have historically dominated this competition,” said Nicholl.

“They have a massive player pool and great coaching structures with a budget that allows for it.”

“RBAI are a fabulous side and very well coached. They have their own Ulster guys in there helping out - the likes of Will Addison and Callum Reid.

Ulster’s Will Addison faces the media ahead of clash with Edinburgh
Ulster’s Will Addison is part of the RBAI coaching team for their Schools Cup campaign

“The majority of the RBAI guys are representative players. For example, their captain Fraser Cunningham in the centre and Blake McClean in the forwards are Irish Schools players.

“In terms of our guys, we have some super players and some of them are representative players. For example, Sean McKay our fullback along with Ben Neely play Ulster U19s - they are both phenomenal players.

“Our outside centre, Daniel Vercoe-Rogers, will be opposite Frazer Cunningham for Inst - the Irish schools 13. That was a great match up earlier on in the season.

“We have a very close, tight-knit squad. Fourteen of them came up together having played mini-rugby at Ballymena. Eighteen of the squad are in upper-sixth so they know each other well.

“Our strength is really in our pack and our set-piece which is really well drilled with a maul that is difficult to stop. We don’t have many massive guys but they know their processes which makes them strong as a collective.”

“It will be a tough game but what a final it is shaping up to be - two of the best sides in terms of regular fixtures during the seasons are in the final so hopefully it’s a good one.

“This will certainly be a day the guys will remember - they will be able to talk about it when they go away to university or go on to play for a club. They deserve praise for getting to the final and as long as they perform to the best of their abilities that is enough for us.

“However, having said that, we’d absolutely love to go and win it.”