With the school season currently finishing up in England, it’s the turn of the Premiership U18 League to show its wares, with the competition kicking off on Friday evening when Saracens host Exeter Chiefs at Allianz Park.
The annual competition is the perfect opportunity to get a first glimpse of the next big things in English rugby and this season should prove no different, with fly-halves and props seemingly particularly abundant heading into 2020. From last season’s competition, the likes of Ioan Lloyd and Freddie Steward are already beginning to make their presences known at the senior level, just months are they left school.
We’ve picked out 13 of the brightest talents in the country to keep an eye on over the next few months, as all of them battle not only to make it to finals day in February, but also to earn coveted senior academy contracts at their respective clubs.
Emeka Ilione, Leicester Tigers and Rugby School, flanker
Ilione was part of the Leicester Tigers side that won the U18 League last season, as well as then going on to star during England’s annual tour of South Africa. A well-rounded flanker who is capable of positively influencing the game in attack and defence, Ilione should be the spearhead of Tigers’ bid to win three-straight titles at this level.
Elsewhere in the U18s, Ilione’s Rugby School teammate Rob Hardwick, a tighthead, and Denstone College’s Oli Smith, a versatile centre, are also players of real talent and help round out a Leicester side which should be extremely competitive again this season. As the senior side’s fortunes fade on the pitch, the focus is going to fall more firmly on the club’s promising youngsters to help them work their way out of trouble, and Ilione could well be in that conversation in the years to come.
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Ethan Grayson, Northampton Saints and Northampton School for Boys, fly-half
The younger brother of James Grayson, Ethan follows closely in the footsteps of his elder sibling, with James having occupied the Northampton U18 fly-half jersey just a few short years ago. Whether the brothers end up competing with one another or one is moved to the centres or full-back remains to be seen, although both add plenty in their own way.
As a comparison of style, James arguably plays with more control, whilst Ethan is the more natural ball-handler, potentially giving Saints a very useful contrast of style. With Northampton School for Boys still in the hunt for the National Cup, too, Grayson’s hopes of silverware don’t solely lie in the U18 League this season. Another player worth keeping an eye on is Kayde Sylvester, as the lock continues his rehab from injury and could potentially come into the mix in the second half of the campaign.
Orlando Bailey, Bath and Beechen Cliff, fly-half
Bailey was the man sparking attacking opportunities for the likes of Max Ojomoh and Gabriel Hamer-Webb last season an U17 and will be looking to build on that this season, having once again guided Beechen Cliff to the AASE League final earlier this month. He is as adept playing deep as he is flat to the line and though he didn’t have his best game in that final, he is skilled at finding and creating space for his back line from first receiver.
His long-term development at fly-half could see Bath utilise Tom de Glanville as a full-back or centre moving forward, something which would be a testament to his burgeoning ability. He still has a lot of work to do, but Bailey is a player that Bath fans should enjoy watching at the U18 and possibly Premiership Shield level this season. Elsewhere, fellow Beechen Cliff player John Stewart is showing promise at hooker and on the flank.
Phil Brantingham, Newcastle Falcons and RGS Newcastle, prop
Comfortable on both sides of the scrum, Brantingham has proven his talent on the loosehead for England and his versatility at school level. An uncompromising scrummager and a brute with the ball in hand, Brantingham is one of the key players in the Newcastle U18 side, a group which could well be targeting a rare appearance at finals day this season.
It’s a talented Falcons squad, built around the Gosforth Academy AASE side, including free-scoring wing Matthew Ward, and a formidable RGS Newcastle group, that also boasts athletic lock Henry Schmid and versatile half-back James Blackett. Early impressions are that this is one of the more gifted Newcastle U18 groups in recent years.
Jack Forsythe, Worcester Warriors and Warwick School, lock/flanker
Unfortunately for Forsythe, his rugby has been limited of late, as he has suffered through successive ankle injuries, one of which ruled him out of England’s tour to South Africa in the summer. He recently made his comeback in Warwick’s game against local rivals Bromsgrove and though he may well be managed back into action for Worcester U18s, he could play an important role for them in the second half of the season.
A mobile lock or physical blindside flanker, Forsythe is inevitably going to be compared to fellow versatile forward Ted Hill, though they are considerably different players, despite playing similar positions. He can flourish as his own player and, along with fly-half Fin Smith, is well worth getting along to a Worcester game this season to watch in action.
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Louis Hillman-Cooper, Gloucester and Cheltenham College, centre
Hillman-Cooper brought his pace and finishing to the wing for Gloucester U18s last season, although that was due to the combination of Tommy Matthews and Isaac Marsh in the midfield, both of whom are now professionally contracted at Gloucester and Northampton respectively. The Cheltenham College pupil will likely bring his speed, eye for space and ball-handling to the centres this season.
Second row Freddie Thomas and back rower Harry Taylor will bring continuity from last season for Gloucester, though with the Cherry and Whites having contracted up 10 upper sixth players earlier this year, they will be a relatively new-look side come the start of the U18 season this week.
Fin Baxter, Harlequins and Wellington College, tighthead prop
The England U18 captain earlier this year, Baxter is clearly a budding leader, as well as an impressive technician at the set-piece. He has been pivotal to Quins, England and Wellington College turning the screw on plenty of potent front rows over the past 18 months. Alongside giant loosehead Will Hobson, a school and academy teammate, Baxter has been making impressive strides in his development.
Quins will likely be pleased to have a tighthead of this talent to work with moving forward, especially if there is substance to the reports that homegrown Lion Kyle Sinckler could be on his way at the end of the season. Between the skilful Baxter and the physical Hobson, an almost ‘Beauty and the Beast’ prop combination, Quins’ front row will be as fun to watch as any in the competition this season, whilst Oscar Beard is a wing who ticks plenty of boxes.
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Will Joseph, London Irish and Millfield, outside centre
You wouldn’t necessarily know Will is the younger brother of Jonathan Joseph just by looking at him, but as soon as he runs with the rugby ball, his running style and high two-handed hold of the ball is uncannily reminiscent of the Bath, England and British and Irish Lions centre. He is not just a carrying threat, either, having previously spent time at fly-half at Millfield, and can open up a defence with his hands as well as his feet.
Joseph and Phil Cokanasiga proved a potent midfield combination for London Irish at this level last season, but there will be a bigger onus on Joseph to provide that go-forward for his side this season. Talented Wellington College lower sixth fly-half Monty Bradbury will be key to putting Joseph in the right positions to do that.
Oliver Melville, Sale Sharks and Sedbergh School, back three
An electric counter-attacker with rapid footwork, Melville is more than capable of leaving multiple defenders in his wake anytime he gets his hands on the ball. He is the latest in a long line of talented players to emerge from Sedbergh, with the Cumbrian school have been on an excellent run of success in both XVs and sevens of late.
Sale’s academy has not lacked for playmakers in recent years, with the likes of Cam Redpath, Kieran Wilkinson and Tom Curtis produced, as well as a power option with Tom Roebuck, and if Melville continues to develop, he could provide some much-needed incision to complement the potential young back line core the club are currently refining.
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Sam Bryan, Saracens and Felsted, scrum-half
A position which has slightly eluded Saracens since they brought through Ben Spencer, scrum-half Bryan could be a player to change that come the end of the U18 season. A lively ball-carrier around the fringes and a smart player who can exert control over the game with his kicking game and manipulation of the tempo, Bryan is a raw but talented nine.
With Richard Wigglesworth approaching the end of his playing career, Spencer likely to come into more significant England contention and Henry Taylor having left for Northampton, Bryan’s value to Saracens is only likely to increase moving forward. Flanker Toby Knight of Berkhamsted School is another worth keeping an eye on.
Daniel Eckersley, Wasps and Bloxham School, openside flanker
Bloxham is turning into quite the asset for Wasps, with last year’s standout Alfie Barbeary also having been produced at the Oxfordshire school. Eckersley may not have Barbeary’s raw physical gifts, but he does share the hooker’s refined technical ability on the pitch, and he showcased that not only for Wasps last season, but also the England U18 side on their annual tour of South Africa.
Eckersley could form quite the flank tandem this season for the Coventry-based outfit, with Rugby School’s Kofi Cripps a lower sixth player of considerable promise. In a high-tempo side, the two mobile flankers could wreak havoc in the U18 League and Eckersley can put his hand up to join a back row that already boasts homegrown products, Jack and Tom Willis.
Deago Bailey, Bristol Bears and SGS College Filton, wing
Bailey ticks all the attacking boxes you look for in a promising wing but what separates him from much of the competition is his ability to execute after making the initial break that his speed and footwork frequently allows him to achieve. He is able to consistently draw the last man and either make a pinpoint pass to a supporting teammate or beat the final defender himself.
He is a committed defender and uses his physical presence well in the air, too, and follows in the footsteps of Charlie Powell and Jack Bates in recent years as a prospect to keep an eye out for in Bristol’s back three. It will also be worth keeping an eye out for Jac Lloyd, Ioan’s younger brother, and Bailey’s SGS Filton teammates Chay Mullins and Charlie Rice.
Nathan Karea, Exeter Chiefs and Blundell’s School, tighthead prop
Another player with family links in the Premiership, Nathan is the younger brother of Exeter senior academy wing Barrie, who graduated from Blundell’s about a year and a half ago. The younger Karea is comfortable all across the front row and played hooker for Exeter’s U18 side last season, although it is arguably on the tighthead where he is at his most destructive in the set-piece.
His work in the loose is equally impressive, as there are few defenders at this level who can keep hold of him when he begins to pump his legs in contact and drive through the tackler. His lineout throwing is also solid and it would not be a surprise if Exeter value that versatility moving forward, should they see him as a complement to current senior academy tighthead Alfie Petch.
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