The Premiership Under-18 Academy League came to its conclusion in Worcester on Sunday with Leicester Tigers and London Irish splitting honours in the final after a tense draw. Worcester Warriors, Saracens, Bristol Bears and Newcastle Falcons also contested the playoffs.
It brought an end to an exciting season as the pick of schoolboy talent in the country played off against one another over the course of the past three months – and even teams who did not make it to the finals at Sixways still had plenty to be excited about.
Following on from our look at last year’s class, RugbyPass will now go through its top three players in each position who are in the final year of their schooling. All of them will be hoping to earn a professional contract in the coming weeks.
1st – Oliver Melville (Sale Sharks and Sedbergh)
2nd – Chay Mullins (Bristol Bears and SGS Filton)
3rd – Olly Hartley (Wasps and Whitgift)
Melville is the latest exciting attacking talent to emerge from Sedbergh and although he has spent plenty of time on the wing, his counter-attacking from full-back could prove decisive at the senior level in the seasons to come.
SGS Filton full-back Mullins offers that same versatility in the back three and is already on the radar of the IRFU, while Hartley is more of the modern-day prototype at the position with impressive physicality, strong aerial ability and a sizeable boot.
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1st – Deago Bailey (Bristol Bears and SGS Filton)
2nd – Oscar Beard (Harlequins and Cranleigh)
3rd – Matthew Ward (Newcastle Falcons and Gosforth Academy)
4th – Michael Dykes (London Irish and St Paul’s Catholic College)
5th – Dani Long-Martinez (Northampton Saints and Norwich)
You could argue the top three in a number of different orders, although free-scoring AASE wings Bailey and Ward have been lighting up English age-grade rugby all season long. Both players have added speed and physicality out wide for their sides, as well as no shortage of technical skill.
Beard has been used at outside centre for Harlequins this season, but he was among the premier wings in the competition last time around. That keeps him just ahead of the likes of Dykes and Long-Martinez, though his transition to the centres could continue with Quins keen admirers of Gabriel Ibitoye and Cadan Murley in their senior side.
1st – Louis Hillman-Cooper (Gloucester and Cheltenham College)
2nd – Will Joseph (London Irish and Millfield)
3rd – Tom Litchfield (Northampton Saints and Samuel Whitbread)
The Cheltenham College outside centre has been the standout at his position this season, despite Gloucester having a rare campaign without a finals day appearance. His outside break and ability to distribute have set him apart over the past few months, while he is also more than capable of putting his foot in the ground and straightening the line.
The younger brother of Jonathan, Will Joseph shares his sibling’s explosive speed, gait and his tendency to hold the ball high and in two hands, and is quite the contrast to the hard-running centre that is Litchfield, with both players offering intriguing potential moving forward.
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1st – Ethan Grayson (Northampton Saints and Northampton School for Boys)
2nd – Joe Bedlow (Sale Sharks and Myerscough College)
3rd – Ollie Smith (Leicester Tigers and Denstone College)
Ethan could end up lining up alongside his brother James in the Northampton Saints backline in the seasons to come. He has shone in the centres over the last few months after having impressed at fly-half in the previous campaign.
Bedlow has gone well for Sale in a season that, similar to Gloucester, has seen them be a rare omission from finals day. He brings ball-handling ability to the centres while Smith is a more incisive ball-carrier, despite having been utilised primarily at full-back this season by Tigers.
1st – Fin Smith (Worcester Warriors and Warwick)
2nd – Charlie Atkinson (Wasps and Abingdon)
3rd – Orlando Bailey (Bath and Beechen Cliff)
This pecking order was up for debate prior to the season, although Smith has quickly singled himself out as the standout player at the position thanks to his reading of the game, decision-making and execution of his skills.
Abingdon’s Atkinson is not far behind him, while Bath will still have high hopes for Bailey. Both players are capable of being influential figures in the senior game, although it is a mark of Smith’s development this season that his spot at the top of this talented trio is clear now that the campaign has concluded.
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1st – Sam Bryan (Saracens and Felsted)
2nd – Ollie Wynn (Worcester Warriors and Bromsgrove)
3rd – Sam Edwards (Leicester Tigers and Brooksby Melton College)
Bryan is one of the most well-rounded scrum-halves to have come through the English age-grades in recent seasons and is one of the stronger candidates to potentially earn some senior playing time next season, assuming Saracens hand him a professional contract.
In other seasons, Wynn would have been the top prospect, such is his ability, while Edwards has seen off competition from a number of other talented half-backs to take the third and final spot. In what has been a problem position for a number of years, England’s young scrum-half options look to be particularly loaded again.
1st – Phil Brantingham (Newcastle Falcons and RGS Newcastle)
2nd – Tristan Smith (Saracens and Felsted)
3rd – Andrew Turner (Bristol Bears and SGS Filton)
Comfortable on both sides of the scrum, Brantingham is a formidable prospect on either side, although it is at loosehead where he is most comfortable and at his most destructive. He forms one half of the most promising England U18 starting prop pairings in a number of years.
Smith has spearheaded a dominant Saracens set-piece this season and just sneaks in ahead of Turner, who has also starred for one of, if not the most talented Bristol U18 side in quite some time. All three players have certainly earned their spot in England’s current U18 training camp.
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1st – Archie Vanes (Leicester Tigers and Brooksby Melton College)
2nd – John Stewart (Bath and Beechen Cliff)
3rd – Joe Vajner (London Irish and Whitgift)
It’s particularly competitive at hooker this season, with another three or four players worthy of mention, and it is Vanes who pips all of the competition to top spot. The Tiger has a physical edge that is rare at this level and he fits the Leicester DNA perfectly.
Stewart has shown his versatility during this campaign, also packing down on the blindside for Bath and Beechen Cliff, while Vajner may be the most technically skilful hooker of the bunch. The depth in the front row options this season has not made England U18s head coach Jonathan Pendlebury’s job any easier.
1st – Fin Baxter (Harlequins and Wellington College)
2nd – Joe Keohane (London Irish and St Paul’s Catholic College)
3rd – Jack Rowntree (Leicester Tigers and Leicester Grammar)
The perfect foil to Brantingham, Baxter is an exemplary prospect at tighthead and the combination of the two should have England fans salivating in the years to come. Technically refined and physically robust, Baxter is a name that Harlequins fans will need to be well aware of moving forward.
Blessed with enviable size, Keohane should bring some valuable depth, competition and potential to Irish’s tight five stocks, while Rowntree has impressed this season in the absence of Rob Hardwick for Leicester. As with the other two front row positions, there were plenty more players who could have been talked about here.
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1st – Christ Tshiunza (Exeter Chiefs and Whitchurch HS)
2nd – Ewan Richards (Bath and Millfield)
3rd – Charlie Rice (Bristol Bears and SGS Filton)
4th – Arthur Clark (Gloucester and Hartpury College)
5th – Alex Wardell (Saracens and Felsted)
Tshiunza has already made the headlines after he agreed a professional contract with Exeter Chiefs last year despite going to school in Wales. His physical presence is undeniable, although Richards is not far behind him with arguably a more well-rounded technical game.
Rice has risen quickly with Bristol and has clearly benefitted from working with Peter Walton last season and Danny Grewcock this season. Clark was a deserving call up to the recent England U18 training camp and although Wardell missed out on selection, that is no indicator of a lack of ability with the lock having repeatedly shown his ability for Saracens this season.
1st – Kayde Sylvester (Northampton Saints and Comberton)
2nd – Kit Smith (Leicester Tigers and Oakham)
3rd – Olly Leatherbarrow (Sale Sharks and Kirkham)
Sylvester missed this entire season due to injury, though his potential is still incredibly exciting. He has packed down as a second row in U18 rugby and will probably move to the back row in the seniors where his physicality and explosive ball-carrying could set him apart from the crowd.
Back rower Smith is another of the abrasive Leicester forwards of recent years, with Tigers amassing a core of youngsters in their pack that are certainly capable of rediscovering some of that edge of old. Leatherbarrow can play across the back row and his position at the senior level is likely still undecided, though his ability requires him to be mentioned here.
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1st – Emeka Ilione (Leicester Tigers and Rugby)
2nd – Harry Taylor (Gloucester and Clifton College)
3rd – Joe Elsworth (Exeter Chiefs and Exeter College)
There aren’t many players in the league this season that look as polished as Ilione does, with the Rugby School flanker having once again starred in Leicester’s charge to the final of the competition. Strong over the ball, mobile, a competent ball-handler and already possessing great work rate, Ilione could be a star.
Taylor and Elsworth round out the openside rankings and both players have a lot going for them. If Taylor can get passed Gloucester’s congested senior academy back row competition, he should have a bright future, while Elsworth has the physical edge to his game that Exeter covet so highly.
1st – Jack Forsythe (Worcester Warriors and Warwick)
2nd – Toby Knight (Saracens and Berkhamsted)
3rd – Freddie Thomas (Gloucester and Dean Close)
No position is arguably as deep as No8 this season where the likes of Ben Muncaster, Will Trenholm and Marcus Rhodes all just miss out. Nic Jakobsen and Ben Grubb can be thrown into that conversation, too, and all will likely get senior academy contracts in addition to the top three above, which really illustrates what a special class this is.
The most impressive thing about Forsythe, Knight and Thomas is how balanced their games are. They aren’t just bruising ball-carriers and flashy offloaders, there is also lineout ability, tackle accuracy, proclivity over the ball and leadership skills among the trio, although not all of the players mentioned will end up staying at the base of the scrum when they move to the seniors.
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes to cover Leicester’s appearance in last year’s academy level final
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