This Saturday the eyes of the schoolboy rugby world will be firmly focused on Allianz Park as the U18 NatWest Cup and NatWest Vase semi finals take place.
The action all begins at 11.00 with Northampton School for Boys v Bloxham in the U18 Vase, followed the second U18 Vase semi, Pangbourne College v St Ambrose College. By mid afternoon the U18 Cup takes over, beginning with Warwick v QEGS Wakefield, followed by the final game of the day at 17.00, Bromsgrove v Whitgift.
As ever, it will be one of the biggest and most exciting days of schools rugby all year, and will see hundreds, probably thousands, or supports pack their way into Allianz Park throughout the day.
For half, this will be just the first great tale of a trip to a professional stadium to watch their side play, for the winners will be at Twickenham in a few weeks time for the NatWest Cup and Vase finals day. For the losers, the memory might be more painful, but no less special, these are rare and glorious opportunities for any school player. Predicting who will fall on what side of that coin is an altogether more tricky task though.
U18 NatWest Cup & Vase Semi Final Fixtures:
U18 Cup (Saturday 27th February)
Bromsgrove v Whitgift – 17.00
Warwick v QEGS Wakefield – 15.00
U18 Vase (Saturday 27th February)
Northampton School for Boys v Bloxham – 11.00
Pangbourne College v St Ambrose College – 13.00
U18 NatWest Cup – Semi Final 1 – Warwick v QEGS Wakefield (15.00)
This tie just had to come up, didn’t it. It is hard to imagine a side for the West Midlands and a side from Yorkshire having much of a rivalry, but these to surely do now, and a big one.
In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Warwick and QEGS Wakefield met in the U15 NatWest Cup final. QEGS won last year, but Warwick won the first two, and it is those two age-groups that are fascinating when it comes to this fixture, as they make up each school’s lower 6th and upper 6th. Or to put it another way, every player turning out on Saturday was part of a team that played in one of those U15 finals that Warwick claimed.
Advantage Warwick then, no?
Well, maybe not. Mark Nasey’s Warwick side certainly have good memories to fall back on, but QEGS have been in flying form and will surely arrive looking for a little bit of revenge here. As we have all seen before, a revenge mission on a rugby field can be a powerful force.
Trevor Barker’s QEGS side have been outstanding all season. If you discount the St Joseph’s Festival, and we must to an extent, it’s truncated format makes it so unique, QEGS have not lost a game all season. Their only blip was an 8-8 draw way back in early September against RGS Lancaster. Victories over some of the strongest schools on their circuit, including Woodhouse Grove, King’s Macclesfield, and Barnard Castle show just how strong they are.
Arguably the most impressive though was in the quarter finals of this competition against Truro. QEGS were favourites, but they faced one of the toughest away trips there is, so long indeed that they opted to fly. To come away with a solid 20-0 win, on a real bog of a pitch, was highly impressive.
Warwick have been flying too though, an early season injury crisis meant that they started with a wobble, but since mid November they have lost just once, to Bromsgrove, the current Champions. There have been victories over the likes of Hampton and Oundle, but perhaps most impressive of all, Sedbergh. It has not been a vintage season by any means, but as the NatWest Cup has become more competitive as the rounds go by, so Warwick’s form has ramped up. There is a sense that they are peaking with this competition, getting better and better with each round, and that will worry QEGS.
Who are the favourites? It is hard to say. QEGS’ form over the year has been better and they have not conceded in this competition since the third round, but Warwick have beaten some tougher opposition and have the mental advantage of those two U15 triumphs.
It’s all set to be an outstanding semi final that could go either way.
Route to the Semi Finals:
Quarter Final: 10-9 v Hampton
Last 16: 32-7 v Oundle
Round 5: 36-3 v King’s Worcester
Round 4: 27-7 v RGS Worcester
Round 3: 26-0 v Hereford Cathedral School
Round 2: 57-7 v King Edward’s, Stratford
Quarter Final: 20-0 v Truro
Last 16: 18-0 v St Peter’s, York
Round 5: 18-0 v RGS Lancaster
Round 4: 33-0 v Stockport Grammar School
Round 3: 29-10 v Ilkley Grammar School
Round 2: w/o v Rishworth
U18 NatWest Cup – Semi Final 2 – Bromsgrove v Whitgift (17.00)
Another absolutely huge clash, and both sides are loaded with NatWest Cup history.
Whitgift are one of the legendary teams of the Schools Cup, achieving that special feat that elevates you above other winners – winning back to back. They did so in 2010 and 2011, just prior to Dulwich College’s stunning three in a row, and produced some household names in the process, chiefly Marland Yarde, and Elliot Daly, who is set to make his England debut on Saturday against Ireland.
Bromsgrove are aiming to join that elite group though, they won their first ever Schools Cup title last year, beating Dulwich College in the final. Doing so ended one dynasty, the question now is could it also have been the start of theirs? They are probably just about the favourites for the NatWest Cup this year, but even reaching the final is going to be a challenge.
Chris Wilkins’ Whitgift side have lost just three times all year, to Sedbergh, Wellington College, and Millfield. A trio of names that just about any side in the country might lose to. More than that though, they have beaten some stellar names, St Joseph’s College, Dulwich College, RGS High Wcyombe, local rivals John Fisher, and fellow semi finalists Warwick, to name just a few. They are a formidable outfit. This competition has seen them have to tackle one of the toughest sections in the competition, London & South East A.
Bromsgrove have been nigh on unstoppable themselves though, indeed they have proven already to be among the top two or three sides in the country right now, and back to back NatWest Cups might take them right to the top. They finished fourth, and unbeaten in the Daily Mail Trophy, and have not lost a game all season. The closest thing to a blip that they have had was a draw with RGS High Wycombe, but they avenged that in the quarter finals of this competition with a 31-13 victory.
Wins over the likes of Millfield, Monmouth, and Warwick have been outstanding, but some of their recent Cup performances have been simply breathtaking. They way they dismantled Bedford Modern 48-8 in the last 16 and Abingdon 45-17 in the last 32 was astonishing, and would have anyone worrying about facing them now.
If that sounds like Bromsgrove are favourites, perhaps they are, certainly they are playing astonishing rugby and have some supremely talented players. But so do Whitgift, and Whitgift have been playing some lovely rugby too.
We are set for a real blockbuster of a semi final here, and one way or another there will be a big story on the line for the side that makes the final. For Bromsgrove it is the chance to join that elite group of back to back winners, for Whitgift, a chance to return to the very pinnacle after a four year period since those heady back to back days.
A classic awaits!
Route to the Semi Finals:
Quarter Final: 31-13 v RGS High Wycombe
Last 16: 48-8 v Bedford Modern
Round 5: 45-17 v Abingdon
Round 4: 22-8 v Solihull
Round 3: 50-20 v King Henry VIII, Coventry
Round 2: 56-5 v King’s Edward’s, Aston
Quarter Final: 10-7 v Wilmslow High School
Last 16: 11-8 v St Joseph’s College
Round 5: 27-12 v KCS Wimbledon
Round 4: 24-19 v Hurstpierpoint College
Round 3: 42-0 v Harris City Academy
Round 2: 53-0 v Richmond Upon Thames College
U18 NatWest Vase – Semi Final 1 – Northampton School for Boys v Bloxham (11.00)
This is a hugely exciting clash between two sides who have enough quality to have been able to go a bit further in the Cup, had they not come across tricky draws early on.
Andy Goldsmith’s Bloxham side lost to Royal Latin in the second round of the NatWest Cup, but since then have barely looked back. They have lost just three games all season, and two of those were practically by the toss of a coin, 13-12 against Teddies Oxford and 3-0 against Merchant Taylors’.
Wins have come over strong opposition such as Malvern College and King Edward’s in Birmingham, a Worcester Warriors Academy satellite. There has been plenty of drama in the Vase for them, not least a pulsating game against The Leys in the sixth round that saw them just squeak through that to a dramatic late try, 22-18.
They face a very tricky opponents though in Mark Lee’s Northampton School for Boys side. In 2013 they went all the way to the U18 NatWest Cup final, but unfortunately for them they faced a Dulwich College side who were right at the peak of the three-in-a-row powers at Twickenham that day. They have produced talent of the likes of Courtney Lawes and Rotimi Segun, while old boy James Grayson is in the England U18 squad – his father, Paul, the ex England fly half, has been helping Northampton School for Boys to prepare.
Results wise it has been an up and down year for them, but there have been some impressive displays in there, including wins over Loughborough Grammar and St Joseph’s College. They Cup run was ended in the second round by Oundle, but to have run last year’s semi finalists so close, 24-18, was a fair achievement in itself.
All of which sets us up for a fascinating semi final, the two schools will likely turn out in force to support their sides in this early kick off, and it seems likely to start the day with a bang.
Route to the Semi Finals:
Quarter Final: 16-13 v Altrincham Grammar
Last 16: 22-18 v The Leys
Round 5: 15-6 v Richard Hale
Round 4: 64-0 v Lord Williams’
Round 3: 42-0 v Silverstone UTC
Northampton School for Boys
Quarter Final: 30-17 v St Geoerge’s College, Weybridge
Last 16: 32-7 v Hereford 6th form College
Round 5: 13-0 v Norwich School
Round 4: 37-12 v Welbeck
Round 3: 16-13 v Loughborough Grammar
Round 2: 5-0 v King’s Grantham
U18 NatWest Vase – Semi Final 2 – Pangbourne College v St Ambrose College (13.00)
Both of these sides are capable of producing, and indeed have produced on many occasions, some outstanding rugby, and are certain to light up Allianz Park’s artificial surface on Saturday lunchtime.
Pangbourne have a bit of history in this competition, Head Coach David Metcalfe’s brother, Mark, played in the semi final of the Cup back in 2001, where Pangbourne lost out to Durham despite drawing 10-10, on account of the tries scored column.
This is the first time since that Pangbourne have reached the semi finals of the Cup or the Vase and they will be desperate to go one further. It has been a tricky season for Pangbourne outside of the Vase, though a few notable wins over Worth and Shiplake in particular were impressive, but this competition has really seen them blossom.
They were superb against local rivals Downside in the quarter finals, and their route to that game included excellent wins against tricky opposition in the form of Churcher’s College and Cokethorpe most recently.
St Ambrose College have been playing well though, and while Pangbourne might have Cup semi final experience, St Ambrose have much more recent semi finals experience, having reached the semi finals back in 2013.
Their form since Christmas has been outstanding, only losing once in seven games, while even before Christmas they were achieving good results on what is a perilously tough circuit, with the likes of Kirkham Grammar School in opposition.
With a tough circuit like that to live up to, it could play into their favour on Saturday, they are certainly well hardened to good opposition and are used to having to play under pressure, and pressure will certainly be among the factors on Saturday at Allianz Park.
It should be an excellent Vase semi final, one that should produce some great rugby.
Route to the Semi Finals:
Quarter Finals: 29-7 v Downside
Last 16: 20-13 v Cokethorpe
Round 5: 22-16 v Churcher’s College
Round 4: w/o v Desborough College
Round 3: 57-10 v Dr Challoner’s Grammar
Round 2: w/0 v St Paul’s Catholic School
St Ambrose College
Quarter Finals: 20-0 v Cooper’s Coborn
Last 16: 21-20 v yarm
Round 5: 55-0 v Ripley St Thomas’
Round 4: 33-0 v Ashville College
Round 3: 49-7 v Hutton Grammar
Round 2: 80-5 v Falibroome Academy