Mike McKeever is the coach charged with trying to lead Ballyclare High to their first Schools’ Cup success since 1973.
McKeever took over as coach from Dan Soper who left to join RBAI.
The Kiwi had lead the Co Antrim school to the final and reached the last four last season so McKeever knows he has a hard act to follow but is relishing the challenge of trying to lead Ballyclare to success at Ravenhill on St Patrick’s Day.
“It has been a new role for me and for the school since Dan Soper moved into his position at RBAI, it is something I’m enjoying so far,” said McKeever.
“They have been very successful in the Cup over the last few years and credit to Dan for the work he has done with the team each year, a large element in Cup rugby is the draw and who you get and where you play them and at which round but it is exciting times for any schoolboy playing in it.”
McKeever has inherited a young squad but still feels they have the quality to mount a challenge for the trophy.
“We have an extremely young squad in senior rugby and there wouldn’t be strong numbers of upper sixth’s playing there is in the region of four or five in the whole squad that I have used, on one side the future years are looking good for the school with fifth years and lower sixth but we’re certainly not looking beyond this season.
“We have a great captain in Matthew Brolly an upper sixth playing in the front row and he is a really good leader.”
As well as the skipper McKeever believes his centre partnership could make an impact in the competition.
“There is a string of players, the midfield is quiet strong we have Matthew McDowell he’s in the Ulster Schools set up and James Beattie is quite exciting.”
Due to their recent success Ballyclare will make their entrance in the tournament in the last 16 and like all competitions McKeever thinks all will be dependent on the draw.
“We’ll wait for the draw for the third round which is the one before the quarter final and we’ll it approach it one game at a time.
“In previous years Ballyclare have done well and that is how they gage what round you come in at, we’ve done well this year with results and performances, I think it is a fair way to run the competition and you go in where you deserve.”
McKeever reached two finals with RBAI losing the first and winning the second and he has fond memories of the competition.
“I won it 11 years ago in 2003 with Inst when we beat Wallace High and in 2001 I was a beaten finalist when we lost to Methody by a couple of points, I’ve two finals under my belt and won one of them .
“In 2003 Prince Andrew presented the trophy and opened then what was the new stand at the Aquinas end, they are very pleasing memories and we were actually losing up to half time so Brian McLaughlin had a few choice words for us at the break and that helped.”
“There is nothing like playing schoolboy rugby and it makes you feel old when you wish you could go back and play a schoolboy game again and if I knew then what I know now it would certainly help.”
McKeever captained Irish Colleges and the University side, he played for Instonians, Belfast Harlequins and Blackrock in the All Ireland League.
McKeever also played in South Africa at the Natal Sharks and in Italy at Udine.
He has played under a number of different coaches and hopes he can take on board what he learned from them.
“I’ve played under a lot of great coaches and Brian McLaughlin would be one of my role models and the coach I would regard the highest.
“But every coach I have worked under I have learned from, Brian, Allen Clarke, Maurice Field, Andy Ward and Alan Solomons, they are great coaches so you try to look into them and see how they coach and take out the positives learn from the negatives and try and produce the best outcome you can.
Ballyclare face a tough opener on Saturday (10.45am) when they entertain Ballymena Academy.