The ACE League returned on Wednesday for the first time since the final in 2019 and it lived up to the hype in a big way.
Much has changed since that final, the champions, St Paul’s Catholic College, have left and in their stead in the green of London Irish were new affiliates Bishop Wand, the tournament has been rebranded from AASE to ACE, Wasps’ City of Oxford College have moved to the northern conference, though they had a bye this week much like the other new entrant Gordon’s. Gordon’s become Harlequins’ first ever ACE affiliate school, while Northampton Saints are for the first time without one after Moulton College left the league.
So it was a very different league on Wednesday morning, but by Wednesday evening there were some familiar themes as the league produced, as ever, some incredibly competitive, incredibly tense, and wonderful close games of rugby.
The northern conference was the real hub of that tension and close scores, all three games were settled by less than a try. Bishop Burton College carried on the superb work of the Yorkshire Academy in the midst of the pandemic with an incredibly tense 33-29 victory away at Brooksby Melton College, a side that are expected to go well give the successes of the Leicester Tigers Academy recently. Not only that, but their 2ndXV claimed victory as well, 21-5. Yorkshire rugby is looking bright at the moment.
There was another away win in the north west this time as Gosforth Academy travelled down from Newcastle to take on Sale Sharks’ Myerscough College and came away with a dramatic 22-19 victory. The game could have gone either way and both had their moments, Myerscough looking particularly strong earlier in the game, but it was Gosforth that fought through and secured a late and exciting victory to start their season.
The only home win in the northern conference came at Sixways, where Stourport High School beat Oaklands College in another thriller, 33-29. No longer the new boys, Stourport dug incredibly deep against a tough Oaklands outfit and held on for the narrow win, ably supported by their 2nd XV who also claimed a narrow victory.
Oddly, Exeter College almost went into this ACE season under the radar a little – the sheer amount of news and change in the league perhaps overshadowing those that have simply been consistent. Either way, everyone should be sitting up and taking notice now after the Exeter Chiefs affiliates put in a strong display against 2019 finalists Beechen Cliff to secure a 24-7 victory. Beechen Cliff were beset by injuries, but little could be done about Exeter’s juggernaut, and it was to be a doubly good day for them with their 2nd XV winning 40-7.
Hartpury College are almost always the gold standard in the ACE League. Only twice have they failed to win it, and that the most recent edition was one such occasion will still be stinging. Nevertheless, this is a new group of players and they laid down a powerful early marker with a startling 54-12 victory over Truro College on Wednesday afternoon, a performance that will have put the rest of the league on notice. It will be a tough one for Truro to swallow, but the toughest test now has likely passed, they will bounce back.
The NextGenXV team took the opportunity on Wednesday to take in the debut ACE performance of Bishop Wand as they welcomed SGS Filton College to London Irish’s Hazelwood training complex. With the London Irish Senior Academy watching on from the touchlines, this was a high pressure occasion for Bishop Wand but they responded with a performance of real emotional drive. It was a scrappy affair, made even more so by a second half pitch change after a very nasty looking injury to one of Bishop Wand’s players, and the very best of wishes to him in his recovery. Filton had the early running, but Bishop Wand scrapped back for a 19-17 lead and then scored with barley a minute remaining to seal a glorious and hard fought 26-17 debut victory.
We will be previewing Round 2 next week, but among the exciting early headlines for that are the league debut for Gordon’s at home against the fearsome Hartpury College. City of Oxford College make their season debut at home to Brooksby Melton College, and two of Wednesday’s victors go head to head, Stourport High travelling to Gosforth Academy.
ACE Round 1 Results:
Brooksby Melton College 29-33 Bishop Burton College
Myerscough College 19-22 Gosforth Academy
Stourport High 33-29 Oaklands College
City of Oxford College v Bye
Exeter College 24-7 Beechen Cliff
Hartpury College 54-12 Truro College
Bishop Wand 26-17 SGS Filton College
Gordon’s v Bye
Further ACE League Fixtures:
Round 2 (15th Sept)
Bishop Burton College v Myerscough College
City of Oxford College v Brooksby Melton College
Gosforth Academy v Stourport High
Oaklands College v Bye
Gordon’s v Hartpury College
SGS Filton College v Exeter College
Truro College v Bishop Wand
Beechen Cliff v Bye
Round 3 (22nd Sept)
Myerscough College v City of Oxford College
Oaklands College v Gosforth Academy
Stourport High v Bishop Burton College
Brooksby Melton College v Bye
Beechen Cliff v SGS Filton College
Exeter College v Truro College
Bishop Wand v Gordon’s
Hartpury College v Bye
Round 4 (29th Sept)
Bishop Burton College v Oaklands College
Brooksby Melton College v Myerscough College
City of Oxford College v Stourport High
Gosforth Academy v Bye
Gordon’s v Exeter College
Hartpury College v Bishop Wand
Truro College v Beechen Cliff
SGS Filton College v Bye
Round 5 (6th Oct)
Gosforth Academy v Bishop Burton College
Oaklands College v City of Oxford College
Stourport High v Brooksby Melton College
Myerscough College v Bye
Beechen Cliff v Gordon’s
Exeter College v Hartpury College
SGS Filton College v Truro College
Bishop Wand v Bye
Round 6 (13th Oct)
Brooksby Melton College v Oaklands College
City of Oxford College v Gosforth Academy
Myerscough College v Stourport High
Bishop Burton College v Bye
Gordon’s v SGS Filton College
Hartpury College v Beechen Cliff
Bishop Wand v Exeter College
Truro College v Bye
Round 7 (20th Oct)
Bishop Burton College v City of Oxford College
Gosforth Academy v Brooksby Melton College
Oaklands College v Myerscough College
Stourport High v Bye
Beechen Cliff v Bishop Wand
SGS Filton College v Hartpury College
Truro College v Gordon’s
Exeter College v Bye