by ALAN LORIMER
WHICHEVER of St Aloysius’ College of Merchiston Castle School wins the 2018 Scottish Schools Under-18 Cup Final on the international at Murrayfield tomorrow evening [kick-off: 7.45pm], a title winning record will be set.
Both schools have won the Cup five times, albeit in two very different eras. St Aloysius’ were one of the big beasts in the first two decades of the Cup before the rest of the independent sector flooded into the competition at the tail-end of the last century.
The Glasgow school set a record of five wins in 1996, equalled a year later by Galashiels Academy. Thereafter the Cup became the preserve of the big traditional names in schools rugby, save for the extraordinary interjection of Bell-Baxter High School in 2007.
Merchiston will be favourites to win the final, not least because of the high level of rugby they play from week to week, and the experience they gained from taking part and finishing in the top six at the famous St Joseph’s Rugby Festival in Ipswich back in October, featuring 16 of the top school teams in the UK.
Moreover, they have Scotland under-18 players in scrum-half Jamie Dobie and centre Matthew Currie, both key players in the Colinton school’s semi-final win over Watson’s when a change of tactics in the last quarter turned what had been a tight match in Merchiston’s favour.
“We had lost to Watson’s in a Conference game two week’s earlier but that was just the reality check we needed for the Cup game,” suggested the Merchiston head coach, Roddy Deans.
But as for being favourites, Deans has played down any such thought within his squad. “Anything can happen in a final. We lost four semi finals and then in 2014, in the last minute, we lost the final against Watson’s when Adam Hastings made the best of a dropped pass to cruise in at the corner and then convert for the win.
“We know that St Aloysius are a strong side having beaten Stewart’s-Melville College, Fettes and then Dollar to get to the final. What we have to do is play the way we’ve shown all year. We’ll enjoy playing on Murrayfield because we like to move the ball wide.”
The only change for Merchiston from the semi-final match is at stand-off where Alexander Fraser comes in for Rory Thain, who has been forced to miss this match because of an immovable Oxford University interview.
“Rory is devastated at missing out,” said Deans. “We tried everything to get the interview changed to another day but with no success.”
Although it is over two decades ago that St Aloysius’ last appeared in an Under-18 Cup Final, the Glasgow school has had recent experience at the younger age level. Two years ago they won the under-16 title with a 10-3 victory over Strathallan.
Nine of that Cup-winning side will be in the St Aloysius’ squad for tonight’s final, a core of experience that was influential in the Glasgow school’s semi-final victory over Dollar Academy. “I think that result showed that on the day we can live with anyone,” said Mark McKenzie, the school’s director of rugby.
“But we’re under no illusions about Merchiston. They’re a strong rugby school, they’re well coached and they have a great programme,” the former Scotland A stand-off added.
St Aloysius’ would seem to be at a disadvantage playing in a lower tier conference. “We’re too small to play in the top conference but the Cup is different. It suits us well. It’s not too intensive. You have to be lucky with injuries and in this respect we’ve been fortunate,” he said.
“I think we can cope with the big schools. But, really, all I want is for the boys to produce a good performance on the night and if we get that we’ll be not far away at the end.”
Merchiston Castle School: R Stewart-Cox; D Anderson, M Currie, O Ashley, D Taylor; A Fraser, J Dobie; R Ewing, D Tidy, G Kyriazi, H Skipworth, J Laing, W Harper, W Smith, F Stewart. Subs: J Dun, S Robertson, A Geddes, H Chapple, O Flannigan, M Cornelius, A Spencer.
St Aloysius’ College: L Bardelli; D Subushimike, A Scott, A Hughes, R Jackson; A Lamb, J Brawley; L Patrick, P Norris, B Maclennan-Patton, L Alessandri, S Morrison, D Sharkey, F Quail, L McCutcheon. Subs: D Hunter, T Mudoti, E Darroch, J McEntegart, L Coyle, A Thompson, D McCarron.