The Beauchamps Leinster Senior Schools' Cup kicks off on Sunday, with 16 of the best rugby schools in the province competing for their Holy Grail: the chance to lift the cup in front of their friends, families and schoolmates in the RDS on March 17th. Here, we preview the runners and riders jostling for position and competing to take home the famous trophy.
The Front Runners
Last year's champions, 'Rock are favourites to retain the trophy, a feat they last achieved in 1996. Anyone who saw that mid-90s 'Dream Team' in action will attest to the size and skill of their forward pack, dominated by future professionals Leo Cullen and Bob Casey. The word around Williamstown is that the 2014 version is just as powerful and dominant. Led by number 8 Nick Timoney, ably backed up by lock David O'Connor and prop Jeremy Loughman, among others, 'Rock will look to pulverise any opponents up front before unleashing their pace out wide. CBC Monkstown, though a plucky outfit, don't look like they'll have enough to stop the champions in the first round on January 29th. With open draws for all rounds, tougher tasks could be right ahead for 'Rock, but no side will relish seeing their name drawn alongside the holders.
St Michael's College
Michael's lost a pulsating final to their great rivals Blackrock last year, and most of that team have now moved on from school life. A young side has emerged in their place and are already showing signs of real quality. With seven representatives from Leinster's Under-18s, as well as returning 6th years Adam Leavy and Alex Penny (both Leinster reps at Under-19) this is a very good Michael's side, who have what it takes to go all the way to the final again. This will depend on a tricky first round game against Terenure College. Michael's should have enough to come through that one and will be better for that tough test. Everyone will want to avoid 'Rock in the draw but if any team is going to knock the champs out, it will be St Michael's and wouldn't they just love a first ever win over their local rivals in this competition?
Clongowes Wood College
It's three years now since Clongowes' last cup triumph, achieved with one of their greatest ever sides. The rebuilding effort since then has seen another brilliant team emerge, who must be considered as contenders for the crown this year. Captain Fergal Cleary will be vital to their efforts and most of their play in the midfield will be directed through him. While they have a competent pack, they may lose out to those teams with more gargantuan forwards, but this Clongowes side can roll with the punches and have already produced some fantastic attacking rugby so far this year. They face a plucky Kilkenny College side in the opening round, which is a tough assignment but one the Kildare side should have enough in their arsenal to overcome. After that, a favourable draw could well see the famous purple and white shirts running out once more on final day.
Belvo are relatively under the radar this year, but have two big things going their way this year. The first is an absolutely massive pack, as big as any other on show in the competition this year. The second is the coaching of Philip Werahiko, who has coached Old Belvedere successfully in the AIL. With Werahiko providing his usual excellent structure and effective gameplan, Belvo will look to boss the tight exchanges, and have the fire power to beat any side. Just ask Blackrock, beaten by Belvedere in a friendly game before Christmas. Belvo start against Old Wesley on January 28th and will come through that without too many problems. Their pack will strike fear into most others but from the neutrals point of view, it would be great to see the Rock and Belvo forwards going toe-to-toe with something tangible on the line. You'll hear the collisions echoing around both sides of the city if they do meet at any stage.
The Dark Horses
If you're looking for a dark horse, or a good each way bet, look no further than Newbridge. Coached by Leinster's Aaron Dundon, the squad features five Leinster Under-18 players along with four members of the Under-19 Leinster side and another Under-19 Connacht player as well. Whispers around Newbridge place this side up there with the Geordan Murphy-inspired team of 1996, who only lost in the final that year to Blackrock's aforementioned Dream Team. Newbridge set the standard in the Senior League this year, trouncing Cistercian Roscrea 43-10 in the final. Most impressive this year for 'Bridge have been John Paul Phelan and Mark Sutton. Newbridge are a side heavily influenced by GAA, with two Kildare minors on the panel. Traditionally, this means leaner, less bulky players, and Newbridge do look small compared to some of the beefier sides, but they have the skills and direction at half-back to come through any challenge and ask different questions of the bigger teams. They play Roscrea again in the opener and, if they come through that as expected, the better-known big guns will be keen to avoid Newbridge in the quarters. This side have the potential to match any of the other teams in the competition and with the right draw, could make it back to the promised land of the Paddy's Day final.
St Mary's College
No one has given Mary's much of a chance this year, but they are starting to look a little bit dangerous and could hit form at the right time. Coached by former Leinster out-half Shaun Berne ( and assisted by current Ireland internationals Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath), Mary's have a smaller side, but one that bristles with attacking intent and pace out wide. They caused a shock by beating St Michael's in pre-season and will draw on that experience if they come up against one of the favoured sides at some point. In Terry Kennedy and Matthew Oppermann they have a pair of pacey, creative backs who can score tries from very little and are extremely dangerous. First up are St Gerard's, qualifiers through the Vinny Murray Cup. Mary's should be able to overcome them with relative ease, after which they'll be looking for a kind draw in the quarters. If they negotiate that and make it to a semi-final, just about anything is possible.
Write Terenure off at your peril. They have been handed an extremely tough fixture in the opening round, taking on last year's beaten finalists St Michael's in the competition's curtain-raiser at Donnybrook on Sunday. Conventional wisdom says 'Nure will bow out at that stage, but no Terenure side has ever gone quietly into the night. Last year, the tag of favourites weighed heavily as they were knocked out by Cistercian Roscrea in the quarter-finals, despite being widely tipped pre-tournament to go all the way. Most of last year's side is now gone and a young team has emerged to take their place. One of the few returnees to the squad is Tim Schmidt, scrum-half, Leinster Under-19 player and son of Ireland head coach Joe. While the odds seem stacked against it, Terenure will look to catch Michael's cold and if they do, they will prove difficult opponents to all the others in the later stages.
Long Range Punts
Cistercian College Roscrea
Roscrea caused quite a stir last year, with a powerful pack wreaking havoc amongst the Leinster Schools' Cup establishment before they were cruelly denied a place in the final in the last minute of the semi-final against Blackrock. Most of that fantastic team are gone now, but enough remains to make them a long shot. Roscrea performed admirably in the league until being overwhelmed in the final by Newbridge. They will have to have healed the wounds caused by that game before they play their first round game, with Newbridge intent on forcing a repeat performance and result. With plenty Leinster and Connacht Under-18 and Under-19 talent at their disposal, Roscrea will surely not allow a repeat margin. In Tim Foley they have a cracking outhalf and if his pack can give him quality ball to work with they may have half a chance. Revenge is a powerful motive and if they can exact theirs against Newbridge, Roscrea will surely be on the hunt for their conquerors of last year in the latter stages.
A school with 8 cup successes to their name (albeit the last one having come 49 years ago) should never be fully discounted. Castleknock boast four Leinster representatives at either Under-18 (Darragh Scanlon, Sean ó Héir and Kyle Dixon) or Under-19 level (Eoghan Murphy) and their side is built around these players. Many of 'Knock's starters tasted cup action in last year's defeat to eventual runners-up St Michael's and this experience will stand to them this time round. Castleknock won't be given a chance by many, and winning it may be a long shot, but they have a favourable draw against St. Andrew's in round one, which they should come through, as long as they can silence Andrews' key men. After that, if the luck of the draw smiles on them again, Castleknock could just pull off a shock or two
The King's Hospital
Much like Castleknock, this has as much to do with the draw as anything. King's Hos play Gonzaga, qualifiers from the Vinny Murray Cup in the first round and would be expected to be strong enough to advance. From there, another good draw is essential, ideally the winners of the Castleknock/St.Andrew's game. King's Hos are a wild card, a bit unknown due to the number of 5th and 4th years on the panel. This is a team who will benefit enormously from a cup run, looking ahead to next year. Look out for the imposing frame of Leinster Under-19 Ntinga Mpiko in the scrum, a potent weapon in his own right. A young side with nothing to lose playing without fear could just spring a surprise should they get to the last four.
Tough draw for a decent side who might have made a run with better luck. Alas, a first round exit against the champs and favourites Blackrock awaits. No disgrace.
A sprinkling of 6th years amongst a young side won't be good enough to trouble Belvedere in the opener. Can be commended on qualifying outright for the competition, having come through the Vinny Murray last year.
Qualifying from the Vinny Murray Cup, 'Zaga have a decent draw against King's Hospital. Tough game against CUS yesterday may have taken it out of them with their first round game next Wednesday. Will look to cause a shock but King's Hos should prove too strong
Kilkenny have made big impacts on this competition over the last 10 years. This time out though, it doesn't look likely that they'll cause another upset to rival 2007, with Clongowes looking far too tough in the first round.
May feel slightly aggrieved to be lumped in here, with Castleknock a long-range punt. Too much of their game is based upon their outstanding Leinster Under-19 duo of Greg Jones and Andrew Porter. Could spring a mini-shock by beating Castleknock, but this seems unlikely.
St Gerard's College
Gerard's have come through the hard way, beating fairy story CBS Wexford yesterday in the Vinny Murray semi-final. Hard to see them troubling St Mary's in the opening round. They should win the Vinny Murray though, which would be a feather in the cap of head coach Eric Miller. Watch out though for wing Con Callan, a future star in the making.