The top six U18 teams in England met at Allianz Park on Sunday to decide the final standings for the 2018 season, and there was plenty of talent on show.
Harlequins won the 5th/6th place playoff, beating Sale Sharks, 34-29, whilst Saracens took the honours in the 3rd/4th place matchup, beating Wasps, 21-19. The grand prize, however, went to Leicester Tigers, who turned it on at the end of the day to beat an impressive Gloucester side, 43-21.
We have picked out a star from each of the sides present on Finals Day to keep an eye on over the coming years, as well as highlighting a few of their teammates.
Alfie Barbeary, Wasps
The Wasps hooker and captain was in fine form, not only grabbing two tries but also impacting play all over the pitch, in both attack and defence.
Breaking through tackles with power, making a nuisance of himself at the breakdown, sharp fends, popping up in the wider channels, great awareness of what is going on around him and offloading, Barbeary showed an extensive and very well-rounded game.
A couple of his lineouts weren’t quite perfect, with the ball a bit fluttery and perhaps lacking the velocity and arc you would ideally want, but that is something which he should be able to iron out once he turns professional.
There were definitely shades of Luke Cowan-Dickie at this level about Barbeary’s game and want to know what’s even more scary? He’s still only U17.
Honourable mentions – Sam Spink, Will Simonds, Charlie Atkinson, Nic Jakobsen
Spink is an exciting talent who has a bright future in the Wasps midfield, whilst Simonds looks like the prototype back three player with his size and speed combination. Simonds’ positioning and counter-attacking was also impressive, but it was just a stray pass or two which let him down. Atkinson, a fly-half, and Jakobsen, a No 8, are both U16 players and stood up extremely well to the physical demands of stepping up two age-grades. There is a lot of room for growth in the pair, but the early signs look extremely promising.
Kapeli Pifeleti, Saracens
Another hooker and another player to excite Premiership and England fans alike.
Like Barbeary, he had a standout game at Allianz Park – and one would suspect many more are to come – grabbing a brace of tries, as well as causing havoc around the pitch.
If Barbeary floats a little wider from time to time, Pifeleti is your more traditional hooker, staying closer to the tight and hurting teams with powerful carries through traffic. He has spent quite a bit of this season at loosehead and is comfortable in both positions, but his preference is to play hooker and that is arguably his best position of the two.
With Schalk Brits set to retire this year, Pifeleti could find himself with some early opportunities at the senior level next season and Jamie George and Christopher Tolofua are two excellent mentors for the young man to have as he tries to make that leap from the juniors.
Honourable mentions – Cam Boon, Manu Vunipola, David Jimoh-Ibrahim, Dylan Taylor
Boon is the latest lock off the Saracens production line and has been a very savvy captain for the U18 side. Vunipola, a cousin of Billy and Mako, is not just a dangerous runner, but also a fly-half with fast-improving control, whilst Jimoh-Ibrahim is a pacey finisher on the wing, but with the hands and awareness to create for those around him. Taylor is a fleet, traditional openside who is worth keeping an eye on, especially with opensides being the en vogue conversation in English rugby.
Tom Roebuck, Sale Sharks
Sale aren’t in too desperate a need of wings right now, but Roebuck could be the homegrown prospect to dislodge one of their stars in a few years’ time.
Sale were missing both Cam Redpath and Rouban Birch from their squad but that didn’t stop them from racing out into an early lead and nearly upsetting a strong Quins side. Roebuck’s forays down the right wing were a crucial factor in that.
Roebuck looks comfortable playing at pace, something which is key in the U18s if you want to make an impact at the senior level, where the game is faster, and the hits are bigger. He took a couple of unsympathetic passes well, showed the footwork to beat his opposite number and is not lacking in the size and speed categories.
He’s another U17 player, so he has another year at this level to hone his craft and keep improving, although it wouldn’t be surprising if an Anglo-Welsh Cup debut beckons next season, as well as some playing time in the A League.
Honourable mentions – Kieran Wilkinson, Conor Doherty, Bevan Rodd, Sam Dugdale
Wilkinson is a fine talent and one Sale will be hoping they can combine with Redpath for the next 10-15 years, whilst Doherty is another of the Sale youngsters handed four-year deals at the club and looks to be adding the physical, hard-running element to his game that he will need to thrive at the senior level. Rodd is a kicking and intercepting prop, need we say more? Yes? Well he’s a fine scrummager, too, something which helps lay a foundation for a strong carrier like Dugdale in the back-row.
Harry Barlow, Harlequins
Usually a back three player, Barlow stepped in at 13 for Quins, with both Louis Lynagh and Jon Searle unavailable, and looked just as effective there as he normally does covering the ground and counter-attacking from deep.
This kind of versatility might not matter as much at the senior level, where most players will train and prepare to play just one or two positions, but it speaks highly to Barlow’s rugby intelligence.
I think his future at the senior level lies in the back three, probably at full-back, and it’s an area Quins could use more competition and depth at in the years to come, with Mike Brown set to turn 33 next season.
Like a lot of Quins academy products, Barlow reads the game extremely well and understanding where and when to be on a rugby pitch can be just as valuable as the physical and technical skills that we love to rave about. He has those too, by the way.
Honourable mentions – Lennox Anyanwu, Luc Smith, Sam Riley, Aristot Benz-Salomon
Anyanwu is dual-threat inside centre, capable of hurting teams as a runner and a distributor, and though still an U17 player, already looks very composed with his decision-making. The younger brother of Marcus, Luc Smith clearly has that same rugby ability in his DNA and is another talented fly-half. Riley and Benz-Salomon are both hookers, and though Riley would seem to have the overall edge right now, don’t rule out Benz-Salomon. Aristot and his brother Jon, a tighthead, look like throwbacks to the front-rowers of old, but don’t let that distract from how good a pair of rugby players they are.
JJ Tonks, Gloucester
It wasn’t the best game Tonks will ever have, with the Leicester pack dominant for much of the contest, but the flanker showed his quality in trying to reverse that trend.
It’s hard to know what exactly Tonks will be at the next level. He’s quick and powerful, as well as capable at the breakdown, but without necessarily excelling at the highest level in either of those areas. He tackles well and has an engine on him, and he can carry in the tight or look for space in the wider channels.
Perhaps instead of focusing on the number on his back, we should just focus on his skill as a rugby player and that he has in spades.
I’m not sure how Johan Ackermann will look to use him in the coming years, but he will be a very welcome addition to the back-row conversation at Kingsholm, regardless.
Honourable mentions – Jack Bartlett, Tom Stanton, Reece Dunn, George Barton
Bartlett is a sizable tighthead who plays with an intensity and an aggression that is very welcome to see at that position, whilst Stanton is a powerful wing, who had one of the moments of Finals Day, putting in a bone-shuddering tackle on a Leicester player about to be mentioned. As for Dunn, a full-back, and Barton, a fly-half, they read the game so well and have the pace to exploit any kind of hole offered by the defence. The senior coaches will be keen to see them both add a bit of size, but hopefully that can occur organically as they mature, rather than sticking them in the gym for too long.
Freddie Steward, Leicester Tigers
Steward is a good player, but to be honest, there are better players on that Leicester side right now.
The thing with Steward, though, is that he could be a great player. A really great player.
He is still U17 but already has enviable size and speed for the full-back position and if you were building a prototype 15, he is what it would look like. His positioning is good and he has a long stride that allows him to cover the ground easily. In fact, he doesn’t look too dissimilar to Nathan Earle, when Earle played the 15 position in the age-grades.
He runs hard and fast, perhaps slightly too upwardly – which Stanton exploited – but it’s in his playmaking where he has the real room to grow.
If he can develop his passing and offloading game, as well as his awareness of who is around him, the sky could be the limit for Steward. He is a coach’s dream to work with and will be one to watch at this level again next year and see how he kicks on.
Honourable mentions – George Martin, Cameron Jordan, Andre Dunn, Henri Lavin
Martin and Jordan are a fearsome second-row combination and it’s not inconceivable that this pair could go on to dominate the Leicester engine room together for more than a decade. They, along with Lavin, a flanker, are real throwbacks to the Tigers teams of old, built on physical and unrelenting forwards. Dunn is the knife to their hammer, with the inside centre showing plenty of sparkling footwork in a performance that had the Gloucester defence struggling to contain him. He can run hard and straight, too, and is more than capable of keeping defences honest, with multiple ways of hurting them.