The 2018 Champions Trophy begins in earnest this week, with five games on Tuesday and one on Thursday.
It follows last week’s soft opening as Hampton and St Albans kicked the tournament off on Wednesday, with Hampton, new entrants this year, beginning in style with a 57-10 over St Albans.
The number of sides entering this year has reduced from 26 last year to 23 this year, meaning that there are now just seven opening round games while nine sides are given byes ahead of the last 1 round, scheduled to begin on the week of the 8th October.
King’s Canterbury, Sherborne, Radley College, Caterham, Marlborough College, and former Schools Cup back to back winners Bromsgrove have all left the tournament, but perhaps the biggest loss is that of the inaugural champions from 2014, Millfield.
Those seven leave, but four come in, Eastbourne College, Hurstpierpoint College, Haileybury, and Hampton, meaning that the competition as a whole is down just three sides from last year.
Tuesday 25th September
Along with Hampton, all of the new sides to the competition are in action in this first round, the busiest day of which is Tuesday, which sees five games taking place.
Haileybury face a really tricky trip to Berkhamsted, who have started the season well. They reached the last 16 last year, being knocked out by the eventual champions, Dulwich College and will be looking to go further this year. Haileybury are a good side too though, and this could be one of the top ties of the first round.
As could another of Tuesday’s games, which sees the remaining two new entrants paired together as Eastbourne College host Hurstpierpoint College for what ought to be a fascinating game. Both have equal records at this point in the season, a win and a loss each, though Hurstpierpoint have faced stiffer opposition. Either way, we are guaranteed one debutant in the last 16.
The 2016 Champions, Tonbridge, are also in action on Tuesday – they are the only side to have reached the final that are asked to play this opening round despite some of those given byes not having their record. They host a side in RGS Guildford that will be determined this year after a last 16 defeat to Bromsgrove ended a campaign that had started with a bang against Caterham.
Oakham, who have been a part of the tournament since the beginning, host Stowe, another that has been here since the start. Last year Oakham lost out to 2014 finalists Grammar School at Leeds, while Stowe reached the quarter finals, beating Millfield along the way before falling to Blundell’s, who went on to reach the final.
The final game on Tuesday 25th sees Bristol Grammar, who lost in a thriller in the opening round last year, host Eton College, who were knocked out in the quarter finals by the surprise package of last season, Kingswood.
Thursday 27th September
The final game of the round takes place on Thursday 27th September as Monmouth, a side that fell at this stage last year, host Bryanston, who reached the second round last year. Both have plenty of history to fall back on and should provide a very entertaining game.
Two of the three former champions in the draw are given first round byes, 2015 champions Bedford and the reigning champions, Dulwich College. As mentioned, 2014 champions Millfield have withdrawn from the competition, while Tonbridge are asked to play in the first round.
All of the previous runners up also receive byes, Blundell’s from last year, Epsom College from 2015, and Grammar School at Leeds from the inaugural tournament in 2014. Bedford were runners up in 2016, the year after they won the tournament.
Controversially, Wellington College are also given a first round bye. They are undoubtedly one of the top rugby schools on the planet but after fielding a second team in last year’s tournament, who lost in the last 16 to Grammar School at Leeds having had a first round bye, they may well have expected to be in the first round draw, particularly as one of the former champions is in that opening round draw.
Among the other sides with byes are last year’s losing semi finalists, St John’s Leatherhead and Kingswood, with St Paul’s handed the final bye for the opening round of the 2018 Champions Trophy.
The opening round of the Champions Trophy is drawn on a roughly regional basis, after which the tournament is re-drawn for the last 16 stage and beyond on a national basis.
That early national flavour is what makes this tournament so special, pitting sides against each other that might never normally face each other. For instance where else could Epsom College and Blundell’s have built up such a rivalry? Their quarter final and semi final epics in this tournament year after year have become almost a key part of the season. Without it those sort of games simply would not have happened.
Will they meet again, who knows, but what we do know is that there will be some special games between sides that have never met before, and as always in the Champions Trophy, plenty of drama.
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2018 Champions Trophy Round 1 Draw (predictions in bold):
Berkhamsted v Haileybury (Tuesday 25th)
Bristol Grammar v Eton College (Tuesday 25th)
Eastbourne College v Hurstpierpoint College (Tuesday 25th)
Hampton 57-10 St Albans (Wednesday 19th)
Monmouth v Bryanston (Thursday 27th)
Oakham v Stowe (Tuesday 25th)
Tonbridge v RGS Guildford (Tuesday 25th)
Bedford, Blundell’s, Dulwich College, Epsom College, Grammar School at Leeds, Kingswood, St John’s Leatherhead, St Paul’s, Wellington College