The Champions Trophy enters its 6th year when the 2019 tournament commences in late September, and this year’s draw tells us plenty about the RFU’s flagship school tournament.
The previous five winners are a roll call of legendary names in schools rugby, Millfield, Bedford, Tonbridge, Dulwich College, and Wellington College, and the likelihood is that it will be another stellar name in schools rugby to etch their names onto the silverware in the months ahead.
So what stories have emerged from the draw for this year’s tournament, which will see just four games in the opening round with twelve byes straight to the second round.
Big Name New Entrants
Three new sides enter the fray for the 2019 tournament and they are big names too, Clifton College, Uppingham, and the school that gave their name to the game, Rugby.
Clifton College and Rugby will both have first round action, while Uppingham enjoy an opening round bye. Clifton will be hosting Monmouth, who lost out by a point to Bryanston in the opening round last year, while Rugby will be travelling to 2015 champions and 2016 finalists, Bedford, who had a surprising early exit last year.
High Profile Departures
While there are some exciting new entrants, the tournament as a whole has got smaller as Stowe and Grammar School at Leeds, who reached the 2014 final, move across to the Schools Cup and Haileybury, Eton College, Eastbourne College, and St Albans quit the RFU knockout competitions altogether.
Five of the six lost out in the opening round last year, while Grammar School at Leeds had a bye and then lost out in the second round. All six will be missed as this tournament that provides so many thrills shrinks just a little more.
Where are all the teams?
A 32 team elite schools rugby knockout tournament over one term. That is the ‘elevator pitch’ for the Champions Trophy and yet in the opening round of ‘32’ there are just twenty teams, meaning 12 byes and just four opening round games. Why aren’t more teams entering, could it be that with an ever increasing awareness of managing playing time and workloads the prospect of asking players to play Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday is just too much? Then again, with a maximum of just five rounds can that really be why? It remains a fantastic tournament, probably the best of the national fifteen-a-side tournaments, but without full buy-in that status will wobble.
Another New Winner?
Every year the Champions Trophy has had a different winner, Millfield won the inaugural in 2014, Bedford in 2015, Tonbridge in 2016, Dulwich College in 2017, and Wellington College last year. Of those five winners, all bar Millfield are in the draw this year. After proving so dominant last year, perhaps Wellington College have a chance of becoming the first side to win this trophy twice. However with three other former champions plus new entrants like Clifton and Rugby, and old hats such as Hampton, Hurstpierpoint College, Epsom College, and Berkhamsted, to name just a handful, there is every chance of yet another fresh champion. What the tournament might be lacking in numbers it is certainly making up for with quality.
‘Elite’ concept starting to emerge
A criticism of the competition in the last few years is that having billing as the top of the tree of the RFU schools knockout competitions, the field did not always reflect that, particularly with regard to the lower half of the entrants. This year however it feels as though things have moved on a step, sure it would be brilliant to have the likes of Sedbergh, Millfield, and Kirkham Grammar engaged, and to bring sides such as Warwick and Whitgift across from the Schools Cup, but few could argue that this is not a highly competitive draw with a standard that on average, at least based on recent performances, is at the top of the pile when it comes to these national schools knockout competitions.
The four first round fixtures will take place on the week commencing the 23rd September, with new boys Clifton College hosting Monmouth and their fellow new entrants Rugby School heading to two time finalists and one time champions, Bedford.
Those will be two mammoth clashes, as will the game between 2016 champions Tonbridge and one of last year’s star sides, Hampton. Hampton will host that one in what ought to be a blockbuster opener. RGS Guildford meanwhile host Bryanston, both made it through to the second round last year after thrilling opening games, so look out for another cracker to kick things off this year.
St Paul’s, Oakham, Berkhamsted, Hurstpierpoint College, Bristol Grammar, Kingswood, Blundell’s, St John’s Leatherhead, Epsom College, Dulwich College, Uppingham, and reigning champions Wellington College all have byes. Their first action will be in Round 2, the round of 16, which begins on the 7th October. For those sides it will be the only round prior to half term, with the quarter finals kicking off from the 4th November, the semis from the 18th November, and the Final taking place on Wednesday 4th December, most likely at Allianz Park.
Champions Trophy Round 1 Draw:
Clifton College v Monmouth (26th September)
Bedford v Rugby (Saturday 14th September)
Hampton v Tonbridge (2nd October)
RGS Guildford v Bryanston (26th September)
St Paul’s v BYE
Oakham v BYE
Berkhamsted v BYE
Hurstpierpoint College v BYE
Bristol GS v BYE
Kingswood v BYE
Blundell’s v BYE
St John’s, Leatherhead v BYE
Epsom College v BYE
Dulwich College v BYE
Uppingham v BYE
Wellington College v BYE
Champions Trophy Round Dates:
Round 1 – w/c 23rd September
Round 2 – w/c 7th October
Quarter Finals – w/c 4th November
Semi Finals – w/c 18th November
Final – Wednesday 4th December