The pecking order for the Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Schools Junior Cup remains roughly where it was at the beginning of the competition.
Blackrock College looks to have the edge in authority from the equally impressive St Mary’s College and Belvedere College with Castleknock College lurking as a dark horse.
First up, on Tuesday (13th March), the first semi-final will pit St Mary’s against Belvedere in what looks a 50-50 call. St Mary’s have won six Junior Cups, the last coming against Terenure in 1997.
The Rathmines school came through against ‘Nure more convincingly than the 10-0 scoreline would suggest in the quarter-final. Their main work-on will be how to make better use of their possession, creating a number of openings, finishing just two for tries by centre Rob Nolan and captain Adam Mulvihill.
St Mary’s have been struggling to meet their own high standards in recent years and this group is the best they have had for some time. There is plenty of commitment in the front row where captain Mulvihill is accompanied by hooker Matthew Black.
Second row Hugo Massey is their main source of lineout ball and the back row of Will Sparrow, John Kennedy and Adam Sloan is a compact unit. While thirteen Nolan has looked the sharpest point in their attack, his inside man Barra O’Loughlin relished the confrontational side of the game.
There was a sense in the quarter-final that right wing Ross Moore could do with receiving the ball in space. There is more to come from them and the same can be offered up about Belvedere.
The Great Denmark Street school will be out to make it Senior and Junior final appearances. The manner of their seniors’ comeback against St Michael’s last Wednesday will have filled their juniors with even more belief.
This is a golden period in Belvedere as they look to add to their 17 Junior titles, the first since 2005. They have looked more solid than spectacular in getting to this point. Captain Jonathan Ross, at number eight, is an all-rounder in behind the muscular work of prop Jonathan Sargent, hooker David Lambe and flanker Alexander Hayden.
The footballing skills of out-half Finn McCarrick are understated and not to be underestimated. He has a talent for putting the ball – on the floor or in the air – in a position to place maximum pressure on the defence. Centres Daniel Hawkshaw, younger brother to David, and Joshua Maher are strong and Dylan O’Grady picks his lines of running very cleverly.
The second semi-final will take place on Thursday (15th March), ‘Rock and ‘Knock will go head-to-head at Donnybrook in what is a curious one to predict. This looks to be a solid, not unbeatable, Blackrock outfit, searching for a 51st crown, which can slip into a groove at any point in the game.
Their strength is in their numbers as it is a well-balanced squad with no obvious weakness. Even St Gerard’s perfect try-scoring start in the quarter-final could not prevent a 33-10 defeat. It all started with the drive of hooker Milo Byrnes and power of prop Scott Barron, the work rate of locks Naoise Golden and Rory McGuire, backed up by the leadership of flanker James Culhane.
The back division has looked silky smooth at times, particularly when 13 Tom Henderson has been on the ball with Jude O’Reilly not content to stay on his wing. It is at inside-centre where ‘Rock can always look to the hard running of strongman Ben Brownlee as a guaranteed source of go-forward.
However, Castleknock have just the man for that job in their headline act Fionn Gibbons. They have been on a roll this season, plotting an impressive course through the Leinster League to upend Roscrea 26-15 in the final with Gibbons picking up two of their tries.
They have continued the feelgood factor, defeating CBC Monkstown 30-7 in the Junior Cup quarter-final. This is far from a one-boy team as number eight Luke Callinan is a powerhouse carrier with an able support in flankers Gavin Murphy-O’Kane, prop John Ozoani and lock Donnchadh Lahert.
The three-quarters aren’t too slack either as half-backs Conor Duggan and Alex Watson are able distributors with centre Sean Casey skilled and full-back Oran Farrell always on the lookout for an opening. All in all, the northsiders have been rebuilding their reputation as serious contenders over the last five years.
While the League title is a nice garland to hang around the neck, there is nothing to compare with the message it would send to take out Blackrock. They certainly shouldn’t lack the necessary confidence whatever about holding all the tools they will need to capture their ninth title, their first since 1966.
It will just come down to which school can make the most of the chances they create.
Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Schools Junior Cup Semi-Finals
Belvedere College v St Mary’s College (Tuesday, 13th March, Donnybrook Stadium, KO 3pm)
Blackrock College v Castleknock College (Thursday, 15th March, Donnybrook, KO 3pm)