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Ten top talents to watch in the U18s English Premiership

By Alex Shaw
Will Capon, Ollie Lawrence and Sam Spink

The U18 Premiership season begins in two weeks’ time and it will pitch the best players from academies up and down England against one another.

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The trophy was lifted by Harlequins last season, who were spearheaded by the rapidly-rising Marcus Smith, whilst London Irish were victorious the season before that, with gargantuan wing Joe Cokanasiga playing a starring role for them. Other prominent winners of the tournament in recent years include Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl and Harry Mallinder.

The tournament, however, is much more about producing and developing talented rugby players than winning a trophy and it has delivered in unprecedented measure in that regard for its 14-member clubs over the last five years. This has been illustrated by the quality and quantity of the young and established players in the Premiership and the English national team at present.

We highlight 10 players to keep an eye on this season, many of whom could replicate the likes of Smith, Isiekwe and Cokanasiga with a swift ascent to the senior game.

 

Cameron Redpath, Sale Sharks

Beyond the famous surname, Redpath is a player that rugby fans will be getting used to hearing about already. The son of former Scotland international Bryan Redpath, Cameron has already made his senior debut for Sale, featuring in their Anglo-Welsh Cup squad and showing no signs of being out of his depth at the senior level.

He can play fly-half or full-back, but it is probably at inside centre where his skill set comes to the fore most effectively and there are certainly similarities, in style, to some of the more physical playmaking 12s in world rugby, such as Owen Farrell and Matt Toomua. Playing at 12 also allows him to form a potent partnership with U18 fly-half Kieran Wilkinson, another talented operator, and it is a combination that Sale fans could well come to enjoy watching at the senior level.

 

Ollie Lawrence, Worcester Warriors

Like Redpath, Lawrence is another exciting prospect in the midfield, displaying all the raw physical and technical skills that you would want to see from a centre. He is built more in the mould of Manu Tuilagi than a Farrell or a Toomua, with great power and speed and the low centre of gravity in his carrying to help him make people miss, break tackles and then get away from defences.

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He also made his senior debut in the opening two rounds of the Anglo-Welsh Cup and took to senior rugby like a duck to water. He bagged his first try and first try assist and looked so at ease with the step up in quality, showing that his impressive physical and technical abilities should translate well to the senior game with patience and hard work.

For a more detailed look at Lawrence, read our profile here.

 

Will Capon, Bristol

This hooker follows in the footsteps of several Bristol junior academy graduates to have made an international impact in the front row, with Ellis Genge, Ollie Dawe and Tom Rowlands all impressing at senior, U20 and U18 levels respectively. If you’re looking for a senior player comparison for Capon, think Jamie George.

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He is the modern-day front row forward that the England age-grade coaches prize so highly, capable of influencing the game in the loose just as much, if not more, than he can at the set-piece. Don’t take that as an indictment of his work in the scrum or the lineout, though, as he is very proficient in those areas, too.

 

Alex Coles, Northampton Saints

Coles is a name we could well be talking about in a competition with the likes of Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels for an England spot alongside Maro Itoje in a few years’ time. He is the dynamic, fleet type of second row that is currently flourishing in the Premiership, English national team and world rugby in general, as teams slowly but surely move away from the more limited role of the old school enforcers.

As with any player at this level, there is a rawness still to Coles, but he is certainly on the right track to rounding off the rough edges and polishing what is already a pretty impressive skill set. He could be a long-term partner to David Ribbans in the Northampton engine room, something which would free up Courtney Lawes to play in his adopted position on the blindside.

 

Reece Dunn, Gloucester

Another player to make the most of the opportunities the development competitions provide, Dunn has been a regular fixture in the A League and Anglo-Welsh Cup this season, with Gloucester adopting an “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” approach to both tournaments.

Confidence under the high ball, pace and footwork are a good foundation for any full-back to build from and Dunn has those qualities in his arsenal. One of the big tests for young full-backs when they step up to the next level is the extra game management required, as well as less space to operate in and time to think, but Dunn is already showing signs that he’ll take to that challenge with relish.

 

Harry Barlow, Harlequins

As ever, Quins are packed with players worthy of mention here, such as Jack Musk, Luke James and Louis Lynagh, but it’s Barlow that we have opted for, with the versatile back three player contributing significantly to the club’s title success at this level last season.

With Smith, Cadan Murley, Max Coyle and Jake Hennessey now having all stepped up to the senior academy from last year’s side, more pressure will fall on Barlow to be a leader in the club’s back line, something which will benefit him in the future as he continues to develop and improve as a player. He, along with Musk, was part of the England 7s side that won silver at the Commonwealth Youth Games earlier this year and that sevens skill set definitely translates into Barlow’s XVs game.

 

Cameron Kelemeti, Newcastle Falcons

Another graduate of that silver-winning youth sevens side, Kelemeti is a highly-thought of talent in the north-east. Born in Fiji, the scrum-half moved to England when he was 11 years of age and earned a scholarship at Terrington Hall, just outside of York.

You can take the boy out of Fiji, but you clearly can’t take the Fiji out of the boy, as that freedom of expression that so many Islanders play with still shines through in Kelemeti’s game. If the gap is there, he’ll take it and if the support runner is there, he’ll offload it. It’s hard to watch him play and not see shades of Nikola Matawalu, but to Kelemeti’s credit, there seems to be an impressive level of control there, too.

 

Sam Spink, Wasps

If there’s a strength of U18 rugby this season in England, it is surely in the centres, where Spink joins the aforementioned duo of Redpath and Lawrence as truly exciting players to watch. Picking a starting midfield this season for the England U18 coaches will be a dilemma, but certainly an enjoyable one.

If Redpath is the playmaker and Lawrence is the powerful pinball, then Spink is the elusive line-runner. In all honesty, all three players can’t be described with these stereotypes of how we see centres, as all three have varied and effective skill sets that can be employed in different ways for different styles and/or game situations. In terms of a senior comparison, there are some strong similarities with Henry Trinder.

 

Joe Gatus, Yorkshire Carnegie

Although Yorkshire’s star has diminished as a club, having spent their recent seasons in the Championship, their ability to produce talented young rugby players has not. One of the club’s big challenges will now be to keep hold of Gatus once he leaves school and comes to the attention of Premiership clubs.

A wing, Gatus has the pace and strength combination to make him powerful and the work rate in attack and defence to make himself a valuable player at the next level. As the spearhead of a talented Yorkshire back line in general, he reinforces that the club, at least from a player development and academy infrastructure standpoint, have what it takes to compete with the big boys of English rugby.

Andre Dunn, Leicester Tigers

We finish with another centre and one who may be slightly more applicable to those old school centre stereotypes. If there is one thing Auckland-born centre Dunn does not lack for, it is power. He can punch holes in the gain-line with alarming ease and then his team can play off of that disruption in the subsequent phases.

There’s no doubt Dunn is a diamond in the rough as a player, but the kind of power and ball-carrying ability he has is hard to develop in someone who doesn’t have a natural proclivity for it. There are definitely shades of a young Malakai Fekitoa about Dunn in terms of his ability as an attacking ball-carrier, but if he can add a kicking game and keep developing his passing, there’s no reason why he can’t aim to be the same kind of multi-faceted player that Ma’a Nonu was in his pomp.

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