Thursday’s U18 Academy League Finals Day truly was a spectacular showcasing of the young talent that is currently to be found in schools and academies across the country.
Hosted at Worcester Warriors’ Sixways Stadium, six sides met for the three play off games, the 5th place play off, 3rd place play off, and the Grand Final.
Harlequins won the main event, beating Sale Sharks, while Exeter Chiefs picked up third ahead of Wasps, and Worcester Warriors secured 5th ahead of Saracens, but which players particularly stood out for us? (You can read more about the day here: U18 Academy League Finals Day report.)
We have picked out ten players that really stood out to us on an exciting day in the West Midlands, by no means is it extensive and many others also starred, but these players particularly impressed us:
Ted Hill (Worcester 6th form College & Worcester Warriors, Number 8)
Hill has been training with the England U20 squad, and on U18 Academy League Finals Day’s evidence, it was not hard to see why. The giant number 8 scored an early try and then proceeded to prowl around the field in a manner that can only be described as Martin Johnson-esque. At one point a bit of a scrap broke out, Hill’s face told you everything you needed to know about the physicality he can bring to the game, his expression was simply ‘do you really want to challenge me?’. His support cast was impressive, especially the likes of Harrison at hooker and Lawrence at inside centre, but Hill added another dimension to his side and was the driving force.
Luke James (Brighton College & Harlequins, Flanker)
The two minor finals were fast paced end to end affairs, while the main final was a much more typical final, tense, tactical, and very physical. James was to the fore, making countless tackles and disrupting the opposition ball regularly. He capped off a fine display with a powerful try in the second half before later being forced off with a knock, his relentless work before that though was crucial and helped set the platform for his side’s victory.
Henry Paremain (RGS Guildford & Harlequins, Second Row)
Paremain put in a performance that reminded us a bit of Joe Launchbury, making some extraordinarily athletic tackles that on more than one occasion stopped what looked set to be a certain line break. It can be tough sometimes as a second row to stand out on these sorts of occasions, but Paremain more than managed that, particularly in an impressive second half.
Gwyn Parks (Exeter College & Exeter Chiefs, Fly Half)
Ultimately it was the 19 points from Parks’ boot that secured third place for Exeter Chiefs, they were out scored by three tries to two but Parks just kept landing kick after kick to keep them in touching distance before landing the crucial late penalty. He was about much more than just kicking though, and two jinking and pacy line breaks showed. This was a man very much running the show for his side.
Will Porter (Merchant Taylors’ & Wasps, Scrum Half)
It was not hard to see why Porter is captain of this side, nor why he has played 1st XV rugby for Wasps this season. The Merchant Taylors’ man was the heartbeat of his side, as all good scrum halves can be. His box kicking was on the money, his passing brilliant, and on more than one occasion his running tore Exeter to shreds, including a memorable try in the first five minutes. His communication was first rate too, organising and cajoling his side from behind the defensive line. He was without doubt one of the best on show.
Sean Reffell (Harrow & Saracens, Flanker)
Reffell was utterly relentless all afternoon. Tackle count stats were not available, but it would not be a surprise at all if his name was right at the very top of the list. He was far from a one trick pony though, he was a menace on the deck and carried over and over again. The variety to his carrying was particularly impressive, but what really stood out was his nose for an important contribution, so often when Worcester had a near certain line-break snuffed out it was due to an intervention by Reffell.
Marcus Smith (Brighton College & Harlequins, Fly Half)
Smith has magical ability, but a Sixways final was not the time for that, this was the time for him to showcase the other side of his game – his game management and tactical understanding. He orchestrated the Harlequins victory brilliantly, excellently supported by Tom Nicole and Jake Hennessey either side of him, as they controlled the pace of the game. His biggest standout feature on the day? Communication. Smith simply never stopped talking, and through the whole day it was his voice that could be heard above all others from the touchlines. It is a quality all too rarely seen, particularly at such a young age.
Kieran Wilkinson (Kirkham Grammar School & Sale Sharks, Fly Half)
Wilkinson seemed intent on taking the game to Harlequins at any opportunity. The tempo that he brought to the game was relentless and he almost seemed to be operating as a 9 and a half at times, on at least three occasions it seemed that Matt Sturgess, the Sale scrum half, had broken clear with a quick tap, only for it to emerge that the number on the back of the shirt was Wilkinson’s number 10. Ultimately Harlequins’ approach won out, but Wilkinson certainly got the crowd off their feet.
Tom Willis (Henley College & Wasps, Number 8)
Like Porter, Willis has A League and Anglo-Welsh Cup experience, and boy did it show. His physicality came close to being unplayable at times with a couple of memorable line breaks. In defence he was a beast, while ball in hand he seemed to be able to get his arms free almost at will, had the support lines allowed the offload a few more times, the result might well have been different for Wasps in the end.
Billy Young (Simon Langton & Saracens, Hooker)
Young started on the bench for Saracens in their 5th place play off, but when he came on for the injured Sam Crean his impact was simply outstanding. He happened to score two tries but they are not what prompted us to include him in this list. His carrying was absolutely immense from the moment he entered the fray. Time and time again he powered through the first tackle and was an absolute menace to get to deck, yet without there ever being even the slightest concern of being held up in a maul. Few made such an impact as Young with the ball in hand in the tight.