In the blink of an eye summer is over, the touring and the pre-season training is done, and the Schools Rugby season is finally here.
It is, in many ways, the most exciting weekend of the rugby season at school level. For while on average the same main protagonists are the ones to look out for at the top end, you never quite know who sits where until the season is underway.
The questions are many, and at this point in the season utterly known. Can Sedbergh possibly have another season like last year? Will St Peter’s York’s steady climb up the schools rugby ladder continue? Are Warwick and QEGS Wakefield likely to end up doing battle in the latter stages of the Cup once more? To name just a handful.
Anyone thinking that it is just about the very top end is mistaken though, there is so much more to schools rugby than that. Look at the remarkable rise of Hayes over the last two years, Langley’s outstanding season last year that saw them dominate the Vase, and so many more brilliant exploits.
What excites us most though is what has been building over the last few years and has been in even greater evidence through pre-season; the growing offloading, opportunistic, positive brand of rugby seen across the board. Encouraged by the likes of John Fletcher, Peter Walton, and Russell Earnshaw when at the RFU, lets not delve into that rabbit hole in this sunny opening preview of the year, and bought into by more and more schools and coaches, it is really beginning to make for not just an enjoyable and rewarding game to play, but and enjoyable and rewarding game to watch.
Who can forget Whitgift’s George Hammond intercepting and chipping ahead for Dulwich College’s Femi Sofolarin to score for Harlequins on U18 Premiership Finals Day last season? Hammond is a second row, by the way. When that is the sort of heads up and opportunistic play that is being encouraged, who can possibly say that they are not excited by the promise of that and more in this new season?
Enough fawning over the possibilities though, let us delve into the important business, the very first fixtures of the 2018/19 schools rugby season.
We kick off this preview, unusually, by looking back. While the true start to the season may come this weekend, there were a handful of fixtures in midweek to whet the appetite and they certainly did that.
After a brilliant final weekend of pre-season action that saw them win the South Coast Kings tournament and reach the final of the President’s Cup, Hampton showed that they really are likely to be a real force this season. With a real desire to play they travelled to John Fisher and put in a brilliant opening performance of the season for a 52-7 victory.
Hayes performed similarly well after their excellent season last year, travelling to Robert Clack for a 48-17 opening day win. QES Barnet meanwhile were in good nick after warming up well at the St Albans Festival over the weekend, beating Tring 21-12, while in the North East Cheadle Hulme and Lymm High School met for a final pre-season friendly.
There was a surprise for King’s Worcester, who went down 26-18 to KES Five Ways in their traditional season opener, a wonderful start to the season for Five Ways who will be looking ahead full of optimism now.
Schools Rugby Midweek Results:
Cheadle Hulme v Lymm High School – pre season
John Fisher 7-52 Hampton
KES Five Ways 26-18 King’s Worcester
Robert Clack 17-48 Hayes
Tring 12-21 QES Barnet
As ever we have selected ten fixtures to focus on in our opening preview of the season, and there are some awesome fixtures to kick things off, not least a number of huge local derbies and some big clashes between a number of last year’s top performers. As usual we will make predictions, but given that this is the first game of the season they can certainly be taken with a heavy handful of salt!
Cranleigh v Brighton College
What a rivalry these two have built over the last few years, all stemming really from that 2016 St Joseph’s Festival final. Of course both sides feature entirely different sets of players now but the quality and recent history of this fixture remains. Both are coming off successful seasons once again and we can expect good things again this year. We can also expect to see some great rugby from two sides that always play with good adventure. Cranleigh won the corresponding game at Brighton last year and perhaps that home advantage this year may just give them the edge in a game that really could go either way.
Dulwich College v Wellington College
One of the classic season openers and one that each season people around the country take a keen interest in. Indeed from 2011 to 2014 this was one of the most important games of the entire season. It could be again this year. After a quiet couple of seasons Dulwich picked up the Champions Trophy last year and did so playing some really ambitious rugby, it seems likely that they will build on that even more this year. Wellington College meanwhile had a tough season on and off the field last year, yet were still one of the very best around. The brilliant Dan Richards comes in this year after doing some brilliant work with Caterham and with brilliant playing resources, as ever at Wellington, will surely also have an ambitious style of play which could produce a great game on Saturday.
Prediction: Wellington College
Millfield v Canford
Millfield looked exciting in their first appearance at the President’s Cup at Esher RFC on Friday, with some real pace and ball handling skill across their team. They may not have been the winning machine over the last couple of years that they were for the three or four before, but they have remained a mesmerizing side to watch. Suspicion is that they have a strong group this year and an exciting style, but so too do Canford, who won the corresponding fixture last year. Both will surely have strong seasons and this could well be a really exciting game to kick things off with, it certainly is on paper!
Oakham v Uppingham
A major local derby is an unusual way for these two to kick off the season but a hugely exciting one for everyone. These two share so much, not least a crest, and have a rivalry that goes back as far as anyone can remember. Oakham have been the more dominant side in recent years, but with former Scotland international Nick De Luca at the helm and having had Jack Hughes in the England U18 side in August, there is a sense of optimism around Uppingham about their rugby at the moment. Any trip to Oakham’s Doncaster Close is tough though, the men in black have won the last nine of these fixtures. Ten would be a stunning achievement, one that Uppingham will be utterly determined to prevent.
RGS Newcastle v Durham (at Kingston Park)
This is one of the great early season fixtures, a local derby played at the home of the local pro team, Newcastle Falcons. The summery weather and the artificial surface at Kingston Park ought to add to an expansive style of play from both. RGS have held the upper hand in recent times, beating Durham twice last year and they have not lost this fixture since the start of the 2015/16 season. Never write the former school of British and Irish Lion Geoff Parling off though, this game is usually very close and ought to be again. More than anything though, this is the sort of occasion that every single player and parent will remember forever. The result is largely irrelevant, the experience here is everything.
Prediction: RGS Newcastle
Rugby School v King’s Macclesfield
This is a newish fixture in schools rugby terms, introduced in 2016/17. Rugby have won both fixtures and aiming to make it three in a row on their famous 1st XV pitch, The Close, the home of Rugby Union. Both sides have played some excellent rugby in recent times and should put on a good show on what will hopefully be a sunny Midlands afternoon on Saturday. Rugby School is always a special place and any opening day trip there makes for a great occasion. Both sides have an opportunity to kick off their season in style and have the capability to push on to superb overall seasons.
St George’s College, Weybridge v Reed’s
Another brilliant local derby to help kick the season off, this time down in Surrey, although it will be played across 4 quarters with not official score recorded. Reed’s enjoyed a brilliant season last year, going unbeaten them and leaving them with a top ten finish. They also beat their great rivals St George’s 18-13, having lost the year before. They will be determined to kick on from where they left off last season but St George’s will not make it easy. Their season might not have been quite as spectacular as Reeds’ but it was far off. They only lost twice more all season (across two terms no less), and went all the way to Sixways where they lifted the U18 Schools Bowl in March. Sam Riley went on to England U18 honours as well. These are two side that had brilliant 2017/18 season and could very well go on for similar 2018/19 seasons, Saturday will mark the start of that for one.
Prediction: St George’s
St Peter’s, York v Woodhouse Grove
Another genuinely exciting fixture between two sides that have enjoyed brilliant recent seasons and could be set for similar showings this time around. St Peter’s enjoyed an unbeaten season and another top ten league finish, while Woodhouse had slightly worse win/loss ratio, including two defeats to St Peter’s, but did go on to win the U18 Schools Plate in style at Sixways in March. Both ought to be up there once again this year and after those two wins last year St Peter’s will be keen to go for another this, while Woodhouse Grove will surely be eager to get their own back this season. One way or another it feels certain to be a firecracker of a game to kick the season off with.
Prediction: St Peter’s
Warwick v Bromsgrove
Talking of firecracker starts to the season, how about this derby game between the two most recent winners of the U18 Schools Cup. School rugby fixtures do not come much bigger than meetings between these two and it really does make for an outstanding start to the season. Warwick won a thriller between the two last year as both went on to enjoy strong seasons, Warwick winning the U18 Schools Cup in the end. At this stage it is hard to know which way this one might go, home advantage of course plays into Warwick’s hands but it feels fairly open. What does seem certain is that these are two brilliant rugby teams with great coaching behind them that could put on a real opening day classic.
Whitgift v Sedbergh
Without doubt one of the games of the season, the England Rugby Travel School Team of the Season, Sedbergh, winners of the Daily Mail Trophy, HSBC Rosslyn Park National School 7s, and Sedbergh 10s against Whitgift, one of the most criminally underrated teams of last year. Whitgift only lost four games last year, but at the top end of schools rugby four can seem a lot. Yet even the minimum amount of digging shows just how good they were, they came in the corresponding fixture to Sedbergh, to Wellington College, Cranleigh, and in the Schools Cup semi final to Warwick. Four of the best in the country and only Cranleigh were anything close to comfortable. Having been to impressive at the President’s Cup, eventually winning it, we can expect another strong Whitgift team this year, while Sedbergh have retained a huge number of players from that magical side last year. The men in brown will have their sights set on a similarly impressive season this time around and few would back against them. This really could be one of the games of the season, and on the first day of the season.
Around the Grounds
There is plenty of other rugby all around the country to get our teeth stuck into as well, not least a couple of really exciting looking triangulars.
We are used to Bedford and Oundle kicking off their seasons against each other, but this year Eton College get the invite too for what should prove to be a really brilliant afternoon of schools rugby between three very competitive sides.
Meanwhile in the South West Colston’s are hosting Abingdon and QEH. As with the other triangular it should be a really exciting way to kick off the season, and Abingdon should certainly be providing plenty of entertaining rugby having had Russell Earnshaw and John Fletcher in to visit recently.
Staying in the South West there is another triangular as the three big schools in Taunton all meet, King’s College Taunton, Queen’s College Taunton, and Taunton School, for what ought to be a very evenly contested triangular.
Denstone College were another criminally underrated side last year, who performed so much better than they were really credited for and were a thorn in the side of any top side they came across. They kick off at Leicester Tigers’ training ground, Oval Park, against one of last year’s stars and a rising force, Langley, for what ought to prove one of the games of the weekend.
Elsewhere there is a brilliant fixture between two Cup legends, Campion, who were magnificent last year, and the ever-strong St Benedict’s. A good start for either side could spark a confident season.
Unbeaten last year, Cheltenham College kick off their season at home to Malvern College this year, which should prove a tough and exciting fixture. Similarly Ampleforth College v Bradford Grammar, who welcome back Dan Scarborough, should be a cracking season opener.
Epsom College v St Paul’s will draw plenty of attention, a massive fixture between two strong and relatively local schools, both of whom could have a big say overall this season.
Dean Close were very strong last year, they kick off at home to RGS Worcester on Saturday, so too Judd, who face a tricky first game away to Sam Howard’s Eltham College.
Harrow were without question one of the strongest teams in the country last year and really should be again this year. They have a nasty little opener though, at home to Berkhamsted who are a coming force in the school game and had a very strong season themselves last year.
There is a decent derby in the South West as Kingswood and KES Bath open their accounts against each other, meanwhile in Norfolk the Youngs brothers’ old school, Gresham’s, will host Framlingham College. East Anglia also gives us New Hall v The Perse and Norwich v Felsted, two games that should be full of attacking vigour.
After their tough midweek start King’s Worcester will be keen to get up to speed as fast as possible, but visitors Solihull are always a tough nut to crack and will be looking for a strong start of their own.
One match that really catches the eye is Marlborough College v Stowe. This has the potential to be a really brilliant game of rugby and both schools could go on and have really strong seasons after a couple of quiet years. Suspicion is that we could see a bit of a leap from Marlborough this year, could that begin on Saturday?
Haileybury, a star side last year, kick off in Ipswich against Royal Hospital School, while jumping across the country there is a potentially huge games between Sir Thomas Rich’s and Bristol Grammar, two sides that have produced some great rugby at times in recent years.
Tonbridge v Hurstpierpoint College is sure to be an interesting game, by their standards Tonbridge were quiet last year but nobody would bank much on them having two quiet years in a row. Hurstpierpoint meanwhile continue to improve year on year and having had a strong year last year, that included a win over Brighton College, they will fancy a few more big scalps this time around.
There are a couple of Anglo-Welsh derbies to look forward to as well, both of them very high quality. Clifton College open their account with a trip to Monmouth on Saturday, both have been really strong recently so expect a fun match there. Meanwhile the opening weekend of the season all kicks off on Friday at 5pm at Oswestry RFC as Kirkham Grammar School, one of the best two or three in the country for three or four years now, take on Llandovery College, one of the giants of Welsh school rugby. What a way to start the season!
Win, lose, or draw, it looks like an opening weekend for everyone to enjoy, and really that is the message of the season and the style of rugby that looks likely to be adopted by most this season – one of enjoyment.
It ought to be a brilliant weekend, and hopefully one that sets us up for one of the most exciting and open school seasons for many a year!
A reminder that we welcome any photos, videos, and reports from your school’s games – the more the merrier! You can send them in to us via any of the methods below:
Schools Rugby Fixtures Saturday 8th September (predictions in bold):
Cranleigh v Brighton College
Dulwich College v Wellington College
Millfield v Canford
Oakham v Uppingham
RGS Newcastle v Durham (Kingston Park)
Rugby v King’s Macclesfield
St George’s College, Weybridge v Reed’s
St Peter’s York v Woodhouse Grove
Warwick v Bromsgrove
Whitgift v Sedbergh
Ampleforth College v Bradford GS
Bancroft’s v Brentwood
Barnard Castle v Dame Allan’s
Bedford v Oundle v Eton College
Bell Baxter v Dundee HS
Bishop’s Stortford HS v St Albans
Campion v St Benedict’s
Cheltenham College v Malvern College
City of London Freemen’s v Chislehurst & Sidcup GS
Colfe’s v St Dunstan’s
Colston’s v Abingdon v QEH
Coopers’ Coborn v RGS Colchester
Crypt v Pate’s GS
Dauntsey’s v King’s Bruton
Dean Close v RGS Worcester
Denstone College v Langley (Oval Park)
Dollar Academy v Merchiston Castle
Eastbourne College v King’s Canterbury
Edinburgh Academy v Strathallan
Eltham College v Judd
Epsom College v St Paul’s
Fettes College v Glenalmond College
George Watson’s College v Stewart’s Melville
Glasgow Academy v St Aloysius’ College
Glyn v Dunottar
Gresham’s v Framlingham College
Halliford v KES Southampton
Harrow v Berkhamsted
Hymers College v Yarm
Ipswich v Wisbech GS
Kent College v Ashford
KES Birmingham v Wrekin College
Kelvinside Academy v Glasgow HS
King’s College Taunton v Queen’s College Taunton v Taunton School
King’s Worcester v Solihull
Kingswood v KES Bath
Langley Park v Skinners’
Leicester GS v Wellingborough
The Leys v Bedford Modern
Liverpool College v Oswestry
London Oratory v Emanuel
Lord Wandsworth College v Reading Blue Coat
Magdalen College v Bloxham
Manchester GS v Grammar School at Leeds
Marlborough College v Stowe
Monkton Combe v Clayesmore
Monmouth v Clifton College
Newcastle-Under-Lyme v Rydal Penrhos
New Hall v The Perse
Northampton SfB v Loughborough GS
Norwich v Felsted
Old Swinford Hospital v Ellesmere College
Pocklington v Ashville College
QES Barnet v Mill Hill
Ravens Wood v Trinity 2nd XV
RGS Guildford v Portsmouth GS
Richard Hale v Watford GS
Robert Gordon’s College v Loretto
Royal Hospital School v Haileybury
Seaford College v Gordon’s
Sevenoaks v Bishop’s Stortford College
Sherborne v Bishop Wordsworth’s
Sir Thomas Rich’s v Bristol GS
Stamford v Nottingham HS
St Ambrose College v Wilmslow HS
St Columba’s College v Haberdashers
St John’s Leatherhead v Wimbledon College
St Lawrence College v Sutton Valence
Tiffin v Reigate GS
Tonbridge v Hurstpierpoint College
Trent College v Bishop Vesey’s GS
Wallington CGS v St Olave’s GS
Warminster v Milton Abbey
Windsor Boys v Shiplake College
Worth v Churcher’s College
Wycliffe College v Wells Cathedral
Llandovery College v Kirkham Grammar School (Oswestry RFC, 5pm ko)