Premiership U18 Finals Day a respite for controversy-hit English rugby
Amidst the drama of Saracens’ salary cap infractions, the reports that South Africa could soon join the Guinness Six Nations and the shocking revelations that the RFU will cut Greene King IPA Championship sides’ funding in half, there is, thankfully, some actual rugby to watch this weekend.
With the Six Nations on a rest week, the Gallagher Premiership and Guinness Top 14 return, although if you prefer your rugby with an eye on the future, the Premiership U18 Academy Finals Day is set to be played at Sixways Stadium on Sunday.
It is the culmination of the league which consists of the U18 sides of the 14 Premiership Rugby Limited academies and Worcester will play host to the 5th/6th place, 3rd/4th place and 1st/2nd place playoffs, with plenty of new faces among the contending teams.
The likes of Harlequins, Wasps and Sale Sharks, who have all been regulars at Finals Day in recent seasons, are not involved this year, with a fresh cast of the likes of Worcester Warriors, Bristol Bears and Newcastle Falcons on display instead.
We have taken a look at the three matches below and picked out a number of players to keep an eye on from the sides involved.
Continue reading below…
Watch: Dai Young to step back at Wasps
Bristol Bears vs Newcastle Falcons, 5th/6th place playoff
This is a refreshing match-up of two teams that rarely get to this stage of the competition, as they can often struggle against the sides that boast more fruitful recruiting regions in the country. It’s a testament to the coaching staff at the two clubs, as well as the work done by the schools in their respective regions, that they have been able to make their way to the playoffs this year.
Bristol are built around their SGS Filton core, with dynamic wing Deago Bailey, imposing lock Charlie Rice and skilful loosehead Andrew Turner representing not only Bristol and SGS Filton, but have also been recently called up to the England U18 training camp set to take place in the February half term. They are joined in that England training squad by Colston’s fly-half TJ Wilstead, whilst another SGS Filton student, versatile back three player Chay Mullins, is already in the sights of the Irish Exiles programme.
Up at Newcastle and they are also built around a strong core from a particularly impressive RGS Newcastle side. Props Mark Dormer and Phil Brantingham have plenty of potential, whilst scrum-half James Blackett has been a more than steady hand on the tiller for the side from the north-east. They are also able to call upon a talented Gosforth Academy contingent, which includes free-scoring wing Matty Ward, with both Ward and Brantingham set to join those Bristol players in the England U18 training camp later this month.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 12, 2020
Saracens vs Worcester Warriors, 3rd/4th place playoff
Whilst Saracens are a fairly regular sight at these season-ending events, Worcester are not, and it is again of particular credit to their coaches and local schools that they have been able to make it all the way to second spot in the northern conference. Home advantage should definitely help Warriors with this game scheduled for the first kick-off on Sunday, which will prompt an early start from the travelling Saracens players.
One of the defining characteristics of Saracens this season has been the dominance of their scrum and set-piece, and that group is spearheaded by Felsted loosehead Tristan Smith. He and club and school teammates Sam Bryan and Obinna Nkwocha have all made the cut for the England U18 training camp, with the scrum-half and lock respectively both having also gone very well this season for the Londoners. The offensively talented Brandon Jackson of Sutton Valence and well-rounded Berkhamsted back rower Toby Knight complete Saracens’ five-man England contingent.
As for Worcester, their hopes of finishing third overall will be led by Warwick pair Jack Forsythe and Fin Smith. Forsythe, a versatile back row, was unlucky to miss out on playing for England last season as injury ruined his chances for the annual tour to South Africa, whilst Smith, a gifted fly-half, has arguably been the standout player at his position over the course of the academy season. They will be more than ably assisted by the Bromsgrove duo of scrum-half Ollie Wynn and centre Seb Atkinson, with Worcester’s 9-10-12 axis of Wynn, Smith and Atkinson as good as any the league has seen in recent years.
They're fuming over the lack of consultation
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 12, 2020
London Irish vs Leicester Tigers, 1st/2nd place playoff
This is the big-ticket match-up. Tigers have won the last two Premiership U18 titles and look in ominously good shape to complete the ‘threepeat’ on Sunday, whilst Irish lifted the trophy in 2016 under then Academy Director Nick Kennedy. Gloucester have been unable to stop Leicester in the last two finals, so the challenge now falls to the Exiles on Sunday.
Irish were in a strong position coming into the academy season, with their affiliate side, St Paul’s Catholic College, having triumphed in the AASE competition and providing the core of the Irish U18 group. Props Tarek Haffar and Joe Keohane, back three players Michael Dykes and Alex Harmes, and scrum-half Rory Morgan all call the school home and will prove influential on Sunday. Elsewhere, Will Joseph of Millfield, Joe Vajner of Whitgift and Monty Bradbury and Marcus Rhodes, both of Wellington College, are also among the Irish players who will need to come to the fore if they are to stop the juggernaut that is Tigers U18s.
And worryingly for Irish, Leicester are once again loaded for talent, despite having seen a number of stellar players graduate to the senior academy over the past two seasons. Hooker Archie Vanes and scrum-half Sam Edwards of Brooksby Melton College will make themselves known, as will Leicester Grammar School tighthead Jack Rowntree and Denstone College centre Ollie Smith. Perhaps where the side is strongest, though, is in the back row, where Oakham’s Kit Smith and Rugby School’s Emeka Ilione and Ben Muncaster all prowl. It’s a pack that can do a lot of damage if Irish can’t match up physically.
Watch: The Academy – Part One
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