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The class of 2018: Belvo bid for three-in-a-row as Leinster Schools Senior Cup returns

This year’s competition gets underway tomorrow.

THE SERIOUS BUSINESS begins now.

In no other sport does a breeding ground quite like the Leinster Schools Senior Cup exist, and as this year’s edition of the competition gets underway, the pathway for the class of 2018 has never been more defined.

Max Kearney lifts the Leinster Schools Senior Cup Belvedere College will be the team to beat again this year. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Belvedere College, the defending champions, begin their quest for three-in-a-row against Gonzaga College in an opening fixture which marks the beginning of the show-piece event of the schools rugby season.

The action is already underway in Munster, Ulster and Connacht and over the course of the next two months, the next generation of stars across all four provinces are given a platform to exhibit their ability and make a name for themselves.

Just as importantly, however, is the competition’s facility to provide a stage for young players to learn, grow and develop, while also producing some enthralling, free-flowing rugby which seems to get better which each passing year.

Standout players from 2017 are already making strides in the Leinster academy, most notably former St Fintan’s prop Jack Aungier and Belvo’s fullback Hugh O’Sullivan, both of whom are also involved with the Ireland U20s this year.

They’re just two of countless examples from recent times, see also Jordan Larmour’s extraordinary rise from gracing this competition in St Andrew’s College colours just two years ago. A natural passageway to the professional game exists.

2017 was the year of black and white again, and certainly Belvo will be the team to beat once more. Phil Werahiko has enlisted the help of previous winners Brian Egan, last year’s captain Max Kearney and O’Sullivan as part of his coaching set-up, while 16 of their squad were involved last term.

Out-half David Hawkshaw, who led Leinster U19 to inter-pro success, skippers Belvo while number eight Ruadhan Byron is likely to be another key figure in the Northside school’s title defence.

Belvo’s credentials are likely to be tested straight away as they face last year’s semi-finalists Gonzaga in what promises to be a pulsating first round tie at Donnybrook on Sunday [KO 3pm].

“Our lads have been looking forward to this for a while now and are really looking forward to facing up to the challenge from a well prepared and talented Gonzaga team,” head coach Werahiko said.

David Hawkshaw David Hawkshaw captains Belvo in 2018. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“We are well aware of the strengths they possess and have had to prepare accordingly, for what we expect to be a full on first round battle.”

Gonzaga enjoyed a memorable run to the last four in 2017 and picked up a head of steam before Christmas by progressing to the league final, only to lose by five points to St Gerard’s in the decider.

‘Zaga’s devastating backline and running game was a hallmark of their campaign last year, and centres Brian O’Donnell and Eoin Barr will again provide a threat outside a powerful pack led by captain Robbie Kidney.

Monday sees the tie of the round down for decision, as two heavyweights in the form of Terenure College and St Michael’s College collide.

10-time winners Terenure have 16 players back from last year and will be looking to build on their quarter-final exit to Blackrock with Leinster underage representatives Sam Dardis, Ross McInnes, Jack Cooke and Adam La Grue making John Coffey’s side a dangerous proposition.

St Michael’s are fully aware of the challenge awaiting them as they look to lift the Senior Cup for the third time and first since 2012.

There are exciting prospects in their panel, too, most notably second row Ryan Baird, back row Scott Penny and centre David Ryan who have all represented Leinster and Ireland.

“We have a very competitive squad which has made selecting the strongest team very challenging, many more than 15 would do a great job,” Michael’s head coach Emmet MacMahon says.

“We are not looking any further than the first round and Terenure College, as they are a brilliant side with great coaches and a school nearly twice our size. If we win that game we will have done very well.”

While Belvo are the favourites, many people will be keeping a close eye on Blackrock College, the competition’s protagonists with a record 68 titles, as they look to end their Senior Cup drought.

Beaten in last year’s decider at the RDS, Blackrock are fully locked and loaded for another tilt in 2018 and are led by Ireland schools centre Liam Turner, while Tom Maher, props Cian Duffy and Thomas Clarkson, hooker Sean Molony, lock James Burke and flanker Michael McGagh are all back and no doubt keen to go one step further this time around.

Tom Maher Tom Maher will be a key player for Blackrock again. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Their first assignment is by no means a straightforward one as Castleknock eye a first round upset while Presentation College Bray and Newbridge College both enter the competition on Wednesday as dark horses following strong league campaigns.

On Thursday, eir Sport will televise their first game of the year as St Gerard’s College meet St Fintan’s High School while in Clontarf RFC, Clongowes Wood will be the favourites to overcome The King’s Hospital.

St Gerard’s are certainly a team to watch after storming to league success before the turn of the year and in scrum-half Cormac Foley — capped at Ireland U18 level — have one of the outstanding young talents in the country.

Captain Ethan Baxter, Charles Byrne, Ben Watson and Max O’Reilly are all players to watch out for but Jason Emery’s men will be under no illusions of the challenge Fintan’s pose, with the Sutton school back for a second-ever appearance at this level after last year’s heroics.

In addition to Thursday’s clash, eir Sport will broadcast live coverage of all four quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the St Patrick’s Day decider at the RDS, while the channel will also show the Munster Senior Cup final from Thomond Park.

The final day of first round ties sees a fascinating double-header as St Mary’s College — tipped by many this year — meet St Andrew’s while Vinnie Murray Cup qualifiers Wesley College face 2015 winners Roscrea, who must be considered front-runners once again.

Rathmines school Mary’s have Leinster talent in their ranks in Adam McEvoy and Niall Hurley and the five-time winners will be favourites to get past Andrew’s, but Ian Dumbleton’s side have enjoyed a resurgence of their own in recent years.

Having advanced to the semi-finals in 2014, the Booterstown school haven’t been able to rich those dizzy heights since but three first round exits doesn’t really reflect the potential they possess.

Jordan Larmour Jordan Larmour has been part of the St Andrew's coaching staff. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Larmour and Andrew Porter — both of whom could be in Paris next Friday — have been back to their alma mater to aid preparations and Andrew’s will be targeting an early upset.

“As a senior cup squad we embrace the challenge ahead,” Dumbleton said. “This is an opportunity to test ourselves against the top teams and our aim is to ensure we challenge our opposition and give a positive account of St Andrew’s College rugby.”

May the best team win.

Leinster Senior Schools Cup fixtures:

All 3pm kicks off at Donnybrook, unless otherwise stated

Sunday 28 January:

  • Belvedere College v Gonzaga College

Monday 29 January:

  • Terenure College v St Michael’s College

Tuesday 30 January: 

  • Blackrock College v Castleknock College

Wednesday 31 January: 

  • Newbridge College v Presentation College Bray

Thursday 1 February:

  • Clongowes Wood College v The King’s Hospital, Clontarf RFC
  • St Fintan’s High School v St Gerard’s School

Friday 2 February: 

  • St Mary’s College v St Andrew’s College
  • Wesley College v Cistercian College Roscrea, Clontarf RFC

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