Saturday sees the return of the U18 NatWest Cup with Allianz Park hosting the two semi finals.
It feels like a long time since Bishop Wordsworth’s knocked out Judd in a dramatic quarter final back in January, and you have to stretch back all the way to before Christmas to see how Bromsgrove, their opponents, and the two semi finalists from the other side of the draw, Felsted and Warwick, managed to reach this elite penultimate game of the competition.
That is because of the shake up to the tournament structure, introducing Plate and Bowl competitions to the existing Cup and Vase structure. That meant a slimmer draw in the U18 Cup, but it also meant that the tournament, certainly at Cup level, has been smoother, easier to follow and, crucially, much more competitive.
Gone are the blow outs that we used to see sometimes right up until the last 16. All four teams have had to battle their way to these semi finals, of the 20 games played between the four semi finalists here, just three could be regarded as being simple, quite a change from previous years.
The question then is will that extra competitiveness have helped keep them all sharp, or will the long wait from quarter finals to semi finals see some rusty play on Saturday?
Bishop Wordsworth’s v Bromsgrove (15.00 k.o.)
This should be a belter of a game. Right at the start of the season we tipped Bishop Wordsworth’s as potential dark horses for this competition, but on Saturday they will face their biggest test yet – by a distance. Bromsgrove are the back to back champions and are looking to follow in Dulwich College’s footsteps by claiming three titles in a row, joining an elite club that currently contains just Dulwich and Colston’s (Colston’s eventually went on to win 6 in a row and added a 7th title a few years later).
The talent pool at Bromsgrove certainly remains strong enough to achieve that remarkable feat, they have a number of players in both the Worcester Warriors U18 squad and the England U18 squad, while the coaching of Tony Windo and Paul Mullan has been crucial to their success.
Of course those England call-ups could hurt Bromsgrove, though hopefully they can secure their release, the same could be said of Bishop Wordsworth’s though, who will desperately want skipper Cadan Murley to be available, Murley was part of the key midfield axis that helped Harlequins U18 secure the U18 Academy League title.
How is each side’s form heading into it? Both sides had good but not perfect seasons, Bromsgrove got off to a slow start but then fired into gear, Bishop Wordsworth’s have enjoyed one of their best, without quite claiming any of the most high profile scalps.
They have certainly been made to work in this competition, with four of their five games away from home, which could assist the Wiltshire side for this away trip for the semi final. That said, while Bromsgrove have had four home games, with two Allianz Park under their belts already they will be absolutely at home in the Saracens surroundings.
It should be a close game, Bromsgrove’s Cup experience and record will see them start as favourites, but that will likely not affect Bishop Wordsworth’s too much, who will focus on using the artificial surface to their benefit and look to use their dangerous backline as often and early as possible, will it be enough to reach Twickenham for the first time since 1991? It remains to be seen, it should be fun to watch though!
Head Coach: Terry Gilmour
Captain: Cadan Murley (Harlequins), Centre
Quarter Final: 34-24 at Judd
Last 16: 41-22 v Christ’s Hospital
Round 4: 32-14 at Pangbourne College
Round 3: 27-7 at Dauntsey’s
Round 2: 57-14 at KES Southampton
Round 1: Bye
U18 Cup Runners-Up, 1991
Head Coach: Tony Windo
Captain: Beck Cutting (Worcester Warriors), Hooker
Quarter Final: 28-13 v Sir Thomas Rich’s
Last 16: 28-6 v Sandbach
Round 4: 33-21 at Lawrence Sherriff
Round 3: 34-26 v Bloxham
Round 2: 34-17 at RGS Worcester
Round 1: Bye
U18 Cup Champions, 2015 & 2016
Felsted v Warwick (17.00 k.o.)
This game should be another brilliant game. Felsted are one of the big stories of this year’s NatWest Cup after surprising fans around the country with victories over St Joseph’s College in Round 3, and then quite brilliantly against Whitgift in the last 16. Backing that up with a top win away at Manchester Grammar in the quarters, they will surely not be underestimated anymore.
Nor should they be, they have a hatful of players in the Saracens set up, who will be used to the surroundings, and have had a great season that they have been building towards for a few years, developing young players who have since turned pro such as Max Malins and Ehren Painter. They have a knowledge within the school of what getting to Twickenham takes, too, having reached the Vase final at both U18 and U15 level in 2013.
However, in Warwick they face a giant of the schools Cup. Warwick won the Cup in 2008 and were runners-up in 2014, but the crucial stat about this side is their U15 record, they were champions in 2013 and 2014 and reached the final in 2015. Those 2014 and 2015 sides now make up their 1st XV, these are players that know what it takes to progress beyond Allianz Park.
They have had it tough in this competition this year but have come through unscathed. While victories over Loughborough and Leicester Grammar in the opening rounds were simple enough, it has been anything but since. An away tie at Stowe in the fourth round was monstrously tough but Warwick came through, 38-21, before they had to fight and scrap for every point in a 13-11 last 16 away win at Oundle.
Then came the quarter final against QEGS Wakefield, their old foe who face them at U15 level in all three of those finals. Again Warwick came through, but again by the smallest of margins, 13-11.
The question then is have Warwick been a bit off colour and had to really scrap their way to the semis, and are they vulnerable to Felsted’s undoubted quality, or is this a team that simply knows what it takes to win, has faced some unbelievable quality thus far, and has come through it?
Felsted will have to give everything to test Warwick and to find out the answers to those questions. Whatever the answer, we are going to have a finalist with a great story, a Warwick win and we have a group of players delivering on promise at U15 level and a school with a brilliant dynasty, a win for Felsted and we have one of the great Cup stories.
Saturday can’t come soon enough!
Head Coach: Andrew Le Chevalier
Captain: Ned Potter (Saracens), Number 8
Quarter Final: 21-16 at Manchester Grammar
Last 16: 10-8 v Whitgift
Round 4: 29-10 at Campion
Round 3: 19-13 at St Joseph’s College
Round 2: 34-13 v Brentwood
Round 1: Bye
U18 Vase Runners-Up, 2013
U15 Vase Runners-Up, 2013.
Head Coach: Mark Nasey
Captain: Nick Rigby (Worcester Warriors), Prop
Quarter Final: 13-11 v QEGS Wakefield
Last 16: 13-11 at Oundle
Round 4: 38-21 at Stowe
Round 3: 50-0 at Loughborough
Round 2: 50-17 at Leicester Grammar
Round 1: Bye
U18 Cup Champions, 2008
U18 Cup Runners-Up, 2014
U15 Cup Champions, 2013, 2014
U15 Cup Runners-Up, 2015