SCHOOLS’ RUGBY: Dan Soper and RBAI getting a real taste for the big occasion

RBAI's head coach Dan Soper
RBAI's head coach Dan Soper

Dan Soper will be coaching in his third Schools’ Cup final in five years when he leads RBAI into battle against Belfast rivals Campbell College in tomorrow's decider at Kingspan Stadium.

The Kiwi was in charge of Ballyclare in 2012 but suffered a 22-6 defeat against Methody, while last year Soper tasted glory as Inst overcame Wallace 14-10.

“It’s great, once you have been in one final you get a real taste for it and you just want to get back. That was the overriding feeling on the morning of the semi-final leaving the house that morning – the overwhelming feeling was of I’m not ready to finish, I want to go back on St Patrick’s Day,” said Soper.

“It’s so difficult to get there because there are so many good teams you have to beat on the way, so getting there is an achievement. Then you have to sort of draw a line in the sand and put your best foot forward and hope you perform on the day of the final, and if you do you’re in with a good shout of winning.”

Soper feels he has learned from both previous finals and he can pass that experience on to the current Inst side.

“You hope to learn from every time you play, whether it’s a final or whatever, I certainly learned a lot with Ballyclare playing in the semi-final from just playing at Ravenhill. We learned over the years that the players clearly understood what they were trying to achieve. As they get on the big stage they tend to get distracted and they lose sight of what we are trying to do and all of a sudden you’re watching your team out there playing and they look nothing like the team that have worked so hard to get there.

“The first time in the final with Ballyclare I certainly learned to make sure everybody keeps a clear head through the match and take your opportunities, because when you get to this stage you might only get a couple of chances in the game and the final showed that last year. Each team got two opportunities and both teams took them then it came down to goal kicking.

“Hopefully you have learned and you try to pass that onto the players but there is no guarantee.”

Growing up in New Zealand, Soper didn't have the opportunity to play in such a prestigious schools’ competition.

“We weren’t involved in a competition like this in the school I went to (Dunstan High School). On the North Island Auckland have great schools’ competitions and the organisation structures have improved over the last 10 years where each Super Rugby franchise has a good Seconds competition. But when I was at school we had a few inter-schools but we played in a club competition against U21 sides it was great, and you loved playing for your 1st XV. But it didn’t match anything like the Schools’ Cup does in terms of the interest and the excitement it builds in school and the wider community, the number of people that look for the paper on a Monday or are on social media for results, I’d have loved to have played in it.”

Inst haven't won back to back Schools’ Cups since 1948 and a victory on St Patrick's Day will see the record books rewritten.

“If we were to win it would be the first time in the history of Ulster Schools’ Rugby that a school has one the Medallion Shield and the Schools’ Cup two years in a row. And it would be the first time a school has won all four cup competitions in the one year.

“So based on that it would be a pretty special time but we haven’t achieved that and we have just got to go and win this game of rugby and that is all we’re worried about.

“It’s just about this group of players achieving as much as they can in the short window they have as the 1st XV at Inst.”

After last year Soper feels Inst are well equipped to handle the big occasion.

“It’s a help for the players that played but there was only four or five that started and a few others that were on the bench. But even the guys that weren’t in the 23 and were involved with the 2s in the training, the lead up and the build up and then being at the occasion and the day experiencing the atmosphere they have a fair idea what to expect.

“Hopefully it will help you sort of get caught between saying to the boys it’s just another game of rugby, but it’s not really because it is something they have been dreaming about for seven years since they came into the school of playing on St Patrick’s Day. Then it becomes my job to make sure you manage the emotions and keep a lid on things and keep a bit of clarity about what we are trying to do and having been there you would think it would help.”

Inst warmed up for the Schools’ Cup with a morale boosting win against Presentation Brothers College Cork.

“We beat Pres for the first time since about 1997 and that was actually a bit of a turning point for us this year. Down there it’s a big challenge and my third year at the school and in the previous two years playing them we really weren’t close to winning. They never got away from us this year we performed very well and met the physically challenge and we put some things on the park that got us some scores,” Soper said.

“It was down in Cork and it was our first fixture of 2016 and you could really see it was a turning of the corner and you could really see the confidence that the guys got out of winning a fixture like that. We have played a few big schools and you just learn so much because you’re under pressure, the Dublin schools just don’t let up and there are no easy periods in the game so that lifts the bar for our guys and they see the level they have top inspire to and hopefully that helps us improve.”