The Aviva A League starts on Monday evening and, as ever, we will be covering it in full on Fifteen Rugby.
An often under-reported and under-valued competition, the Aviva A League is, for us, a brilliant competition. It offers Academy players, and even some schoolboys, to compete against fellow professionals and aspiring professionals in Premiership Stadiums alongside some seasoned players.
Last season saw the likes of Dino Lamb-Cona, Tom Parton, Gabriel Ibitoye, and Alex Craig jump straight from the school fields to the A League fields, in doing so proving what a great breeding ground it is for young talent.
We bring this quick look at the A League ahead of Round 1 exclusively to the Weekend Review in order to be able to familiarise those of you who are new to the A League with its format, history, and when it all happens.
It takes place every Monday night, and traditionally has included fourteen teams, the current 12 Aviva Premiership sides plus London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie from the Greene King IPA Championship. However this year, following relegation, London Irish have chosen not to enter – more on that later.
The League is split in two, with a North Division and a South Division. Newcastle Falcons A, Northampton Wanderers, Sale Jets, Worcester Cavaliers, Leicester Tigers A, Yorkshire Carnegie A, and Wasps A compete in the North, while in the South it is Bristol United, Harlequins A, Gloucester United, Saracens Storm, Exeter Braves, and Bath United.
In previous years Wasps competed in the South and Gloucester in the North, however with Wasps now based in Coventry, the two sides have swapped divisions.
The top two teams from each division take part in the semi finals, 1st in the North playing 2nd in the South and vice-versa, on the 24th April, with the winners competing in the final on the 1st May.
Last year Exeter Braves won the title, beating Northampton Wanderers in the final. It was their second A League title, having won it in 2012 with a side that contained players like Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Hill, Jack Nowell, and Henry Slade.
That, really, is the point of the A League. To test out young players in a physical and professional environment, without exposing them to the pressure and even greater physicality of the Premiership. There is plenty of Premiership talent in the A League though, most clubs also use it to help nurse through injured players and to give players on the fringes of the 1st XV some game time. Bath used it to try to teach Sam Burgess the nuances of Union.
The most successful side in the A League have been Leicester Tigers A, who have won it four times, the latest being in 2011. Indeed in that period of late 2000s domination of the Premiership and Europe, Leicester and Wasps had a hold of the A League too, with Tigers winning in ’05 and ’06 while Wasps won in ’07 and ’08. In fact from 2005 to 2011 the only side other than those two to win was Northampton Wanders in 2009.
Tigers probably missed out on even more titles in that golden era of their in the late 90s and early 00s as the league only started in 2003/4, with Harlequins (or NEC Harlequins as they then were) winning the inaugural season.
Quins repeated the feat in 2013, with a terrifically exciting Bath United side winning in 2014. Then in 2015 it was Saracens Storm who led the way, led by none other than the fastest rising star in World Rugby, Maro Itoje.
The exciting thing about the league is that it is highly unpredictable, teams are rarely the same one round to the next, making each fixture an unknown quantity. The only shame is how infrequent the game are. We are lucky early on though, with back to back rounds – round 1 takes place on Monday, with round 2 on the 19th.
The 3rd round is on the 3rd October but then it is a break until December until the next, with a full round on the 19th December, though Exeter Braves and Bath United play on the 5th having postponed Monday’s game. It’s then mid-April before we kick off again, with the final round of games on the 10th.
It is therefore definitely worth keeping an eye on these early games, as it is going to be a while until the next ones!
It all kicks off with Newcastle Falcons A v Northampton Wanderers in the North, followed by Sale Jets v Worcester Cavaliers and Wasps A v Leicester Tigers A. Meanwhile in the South it is Bristol United v Harlequins A and Gloucester United v Saracens Storm, with Exeter Braves v Bath United delayed until December.
Do stick with us through the A League season though, it is a superb chance to hear about the progress of some of the most recent schoolboy rugby stars, as well as to catch a few of the current school players stepping up a level.
Aviva A League Round 1 Fixtures:
Newcastle Falcons A v Northampton Wanderers (17.00)
Sale Jets v Worcester Cavaliers (19.30)
Wasps A v Leicester Tigers A (19.30)
Bristol United v Harlequins A (19.15)
Gloucester United v Saracens Storm (19.30)
5th December (Exeter Braves v Bath United – rescheduled from this week)
24th April – Semi Finals
1st May – Final
2016 – Exeter Braves
2015 – Saracens Storm
2014 – Bath United
2013 – Harlequins A
2012 – Exeter Braves
2011 – Leicester Tigers A
2010 – Leicester Tigers A
2009 – Northampton Wanderers
2008 – Wasps A
2007 – Wasps A
2006 – Leicester Tigers A
2005 – Leicester Tigers A
2004 – Harlequins A