With the introduction of the RFUâ€™s new U18 Schools Champions Trophy, there are now three major national fifteen-a-side competitions, giving an opportunity for everyone to get that little bit closer to the age-old questions of just who is the best.
There is of course the long running NatWest Schools Cup (previously the Daily Mail Cup), last year saw the introduction of the very popular Daily Mail Trophy, and we now have the introduction of the Champions Trophy.
Wednesdayâ€™s announcement of the draw immediately called out this new tournament as a truly heavyweight competition. There are just 32 teams involved and they are 32 top quality teams. There will be none of the â€˜easing inâ€™ to the tournament that the big sides can do in the NatWest Cup, the Champions Trophy will be a true test right from the very start.
It is not yet a perfect situation though and there are a few question marks. Namely, is it right that teams have to apply and are then selected for the final 32 places by a five-man panel, and why is the RFU risking the quality of the NatWest Cup, which has undoubtedly been diluted through several teams leaving it to take part in the new competition.
Before addressing those queries it should be pointed out though that this is just a pilot year for the tournament. Any questions should be seen from that context.
It should also be said that, at least from this writerâ€™s view, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Schools Champions Trophy will be anything other than an absolute success.
32 top teams all in a knockout format that ends ahead of the Christmas break, it is very, very difficult to see it being anything other than hugely popular. That it has also tempted the likes of Tonbridge, Eton, and Epsom College out of their national competition â€˜isolationâ€™ already makes it a success and really provides an opportunity to start to judge school rugby more and more accurately.
In terms of the application process, it is really the only way it can be done, particularly in a pilot year. The choices are either to make it by invitation only or to have an application process. An application process at least gives an opportunity to ensure a fair spread of regions and â€˜qualityâ€™.
Why the RFU would risk the quality of the NatWest Cup is a more difficult question to answer, however the inclusion of several schools who have steadfastly refused to enter the NatWest Cup probably goes some way to answering that question.
There are three main reason why some schools have in the past chosen not to compete in the Schools Cup; the maximum 3 imports rule, the fact that fixtures usually have to be played midweek, and the fact that it stretched across two terms, meaning that one term rugby schools struggled to juggle post Christmas cup commitments with those of other sports.
The Champions Trophy addresses these concerns to a degree. The import rule remains, but the reality is that it has to as the RFU/ERFSU needs to be seen to support all schools, not just the best and most powerful. The midweek concern is also addressed to a degree, there is a fair amount of flexibility in the Champions Trophy fixture dates and fixtures can be played on a Saturday if schools want to, and the early release of the fixtures and dates allows schools to create a few empty Saturdayâ€™s if they wish.
The concern that is fully addressed though is the calendar. The competition ends before the Christmas holidays so there is no conflict for one-term rugby schools. That is a huge bonus for many and, without wishing to put words in their mouths, it is not hard to imagine that that is why schools such as Tonbridge and Epsom have entered.
Of course there is a certain benefit for the RFU too. Last year there were a couple of relatively high profile cases of players being needed for both school and country or school and academy in the post Christmas rush of both academy and schoolboy international fixtures. The RFU now stand to benefit from 32 schools worth of players definitely having their season done by Christmas, and 32 strong schools worth of players.
That feeling is supported by comments fro Rob Andrew, the RFU Performance Director, and John Fletcher, the RFU Professional Player Development Manager, at the tournament launch.
Andrew said: â€œThis new one-term school contest will allow the best Under 18s to play for their schools, clubs, academies and their country.â€ While Fletcher was extremely keen to point out the availability of players that academies stand to gain, saying:
â€œThe games will be before the regional academy fixtures, allowing all existing academy players, and the rest of the players an opportunity to perform well and then get selected to play in what has proven to be an excellent academy U18 league.â€
One suspects that this is why they have been prepared to sacrifice just a touch of the competitiveness of the NatWest Cup, which in fairness is still going to remain incredibly competitive, as the draw has shown pretty conclusively. (Click here for the U18 NatWest Schools Cup draw).
From this writers point of view though, the Schools Champions Trophy is already a success, before a ball has even been touched.
To have another national competition on the calendar can only be a positive and provides a further, and earlier, opportunity for schools from different regions and outside of their usual fixture circuit to play each other.
A personal appeal is the likelihood of a number of teams from the North of England playing schools from the more southern regions. Schoolboy rugby in the north has taken a bit of a reputational hit in recent years, possibly unfairly given Woodhouse Groveâ€™s domination of the Daily Mail Trophy last year and the undoubted brilliance of Sedbergh, and the opportunity to play some teams that are perceived as stronger will provide a great opportunity to prove themselves.
Again from a personal point of view, maybe the only shame of the competition is that Sedbergh and Wellington College are not involved. They finished second and fourth is last yearâ€™s Daily Mail trophy and it would have been great to see them follow the lead of sides like Epsom College and sign up to the Champions Trophy having abstained from the NatWest Cup.
All of which leads back to that opening paragraph, â€œthere are now three major national fifteen-a-side competitions, giving an opportunity for everyone to get that little bit closer to the age-old questions of just who is the bestâ€.
It really should bring us closer. Between the merit system of the Daily Mail Trophy, the wide ranging nature of the NatWest Schools Cup, and what will be the high quality and narrow focus of the new Schools Champions Trophy we should see a truly national schools rugby profile emerge.
Throw in tournaments such as the widely respected St Josephâ€™s Festival and we really will have a much clearer idea than for many years.
There will still be debate, there always is, and that is part of the huge appeal of schools rugby. It is passionate, it is partisan, and it is uncertain. That makes for lively debate but also for great entertainment.
The Schools Champions Trophy already looks like a fantastic addition to the school rugby calendar, and one that we at Fifteen Rugby will be covering with enthusiasm.
Bring on September.
To see the draw for the Champions Trophy, please follow this link: Champions Trophy Draw
By Angus Savage