The Anglo-Welsh cup returned to the fixture list last weekend after a year’s hiatus. Seen as the natural stepping stone between the reserve A-League and full blown Premiership rugby, the (formerly LV) Cup is often seen as a tournament for blooding youngsters, resting first choice players and allowing those returning from injury some vital game time. Finals gone by have seen the blossoming of players including Maro Itoje, Henry Slade and George Ford, so while there are some who question the relevance of this competition in an ever toughening rugby calendar, it provides valuable opportunity for younger players to show, and test, their ability.
Friday saw three games all separated by less than seven points. A Sale side containing experienced players Mike Phillips and Brian Mujati took on a Wasps outfit that had lost only once this season. Although the Southerners were leading 8-7 at the break, Sale fought back to win 17-13, at the same time handing a debut to rugby league convert Josh Charnley. The former Wigan Warrior has already expressed his desire to play for the national side, but only time will tell if he can follow in the footsteps of fellow convert, and Sale player, Jason Robinson. On the Wasps side 18 year old Jacob Umaga, son of Mike and nephew to Tana, came off the bench to mark his first first team appearance with a try. In Friday’s other games Leicester squeezed past Bath by a point at the Rec to win 21-20, and Worcester ran out 31-25 winners against Bristol.
Saturday saw the three most recent champions all play. Saracens, who are still technically holders after taking the trophy in 2015, were pipped at the post after a stirring second half comeback by Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites were 5-25 down at the break, but a much improved last 40 saw them score five tries, the last coming right at the death. In the days’ other match Exeter Chiefs travelled to the Stoop to take on Harlequins. Although the Chiefs were well beaten 29-15, the talking point will undoubtedly be Quins’ Mat Laumanu’s dangerous tackle on Will Hooley. Seemingly both high and without the arms, the back rower was given a yellow card on the day, which has since been increased to a 5 match ban. What would have happened if the New Zealander had been given a red card in the first half is impossible to be tell, but Exeter will be understandably frustrated at the disparity in the punishments. On Sunday meanwhile Northampton were victorious in Newcastle with a comfortable 24-16 win.
Historically this competition has allowed young players to show off and shine in an environment which, while not having the physicality or pressure of the premiership, allows the opportunity to test oneself against first team players. Sam James at Sale continued his progression with an assured performance at 10. Usually a 13, the Saxons player controlled proceedings in a calm way as his side ended up victorious. Another 10, Adam Hastings (son of Gavin) gave a strong performance in defeat against a Leicester side containing Freddie Burns. The youngster showed some nice touches and will be worth watching as the cup continues. In addition, the latest members of the Umaga and Tuilagi families were rolled out for Wasps and Leicester respectively, both of whom will be looking to continue their fine rugby heritage.
Tom Croft and Dave Ewers were both welcome sights back on the rugby field after extended lay-offs. Former Lion Croft has never quite matched the heights of his rangy best, but his experience will be key for Leicester throughout the season, whilst Chiefs man Ewers would perhaps have been in with a shout of making the England squad if he had not been unavailable. His physicality will be key as the Devoners attempt to turn round what has been a poor start to the season.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup has long been known as a chance to develop players, however there are no rules regarding how strong a team to play. As a result, some weeks gnarled internationals come up against fresh faced 18 year olds on debut- which hardly seems fair. Often, as the tournament progresses, teams will begin to play a more experienced team, meaning the players who have got the team into a position to win silverware are cast aside. There are also rules and financial incentives to play more academy grown or English players throughout the season. These are, more important to smaller clubs who need the extra income, which then hinders the potential strength of the team. Usually larger clubs take the chance to rest their first choice players, but there are anomalies.