Leicester Tigers and Worcester Warriors have confirmed their spots at the Premiership Rugby Under 18 Academy Competition Finals Day on 15 February. They will join Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby, London Irish and Wasps at Allianz Park next Monday.
Worcester grasped their place after Northampton Saints recorded a 31-17 win over Sale Sharks on Saturday. A win for Sale would have seen them into the top three in the Northern Conference at the expense of the Warriors, but they were denied by last year’s runners-up Saints.
Ehren Painter and Tosin Segun crossed the whitewash before the break, before Jake Carter and Tom Brown extinguished any hopes of a comeback with scores in the second half, and Northampton rounded off their campaign with a bonus-point win.
With six wins from six games, London Irish’s rise in the competition has come as no surprise to Academy Director Nick Kennedy who believes his entire squad’s strength as a team has been the key to their success.
The Exiles will face off against Gloucester Rugby at Allianz Park on Monday, with both sides unbeaten thus far in the competition.
After failing to qualify for Finals Day last year, London Irish have been in devastating form in the Southern Conference, with a perfect record and an average of five tries a match so far in the competition.
The Exiles have a rich history of bringing players through the ranks with Alex Corbisiero, Topsy Ojo, and Kennedy himself all graduating from the academy, as well as recent leaver Cam Cowell – who could well call himself an Olympian this summer with the 7s team.
No one has scored more than Irish across both under-18 conferences, and with only the Cherry & Whites now standing in their path to the Under 18 Academy Competition title, Kennedy is excited to see how they handle the pressure.
“I don’t think there’s really a secret in how successful our academy has been. It’s just down to good talent and hard work really,” he said.
“We have a good coaching team and benefit from being located in a good catchment area in Berkshire and Hampshire who have managed to produce some great rugby players for us.
“It is difficult to pick players out without mentioning the whole squad really. We have a great squad around us fortunately so it would be hard to mention one without mentioning all 23 boys.
“I would say Jacob Atkins had a great start to the season before he got injured. Freddy Bunting, Jarod Leat and Sam Evans have all played well to name but a few.
“The whole season these boys are having right now is brilliant. They are a really good bunch of players who have their feet firmly on the ground.”
Gloucester Rugby will be no pushovers, last year’s sixth-placed side having won six from six themselves.
They capped off their season by coming from behind to win 36-28 at last year’s beaten finalists Northampton Saints in their final game, and travelled to Pennyhill Park to train with Eddie Jones’ England squad last week ahead of their Six Nations opener in Scotland.
"I think in terms of performance, it's been really positive,” Gloucester’s Head of Academy, Neil McCarthy, told the Gloucester Rugby website.
“We're not necessarily focused on winning the Academy League so results aren't our priority. Our priority is to develop players who are capable of progressing into the first team.
"But it's really pleasing that our performances across the board have been really good.
"One of the most pleasing elements is that we haven't put the same team out twice. Clearly we have some stand-out players in that group, but we also have some lads in the lower sixth who are equally as good and have had as much opportunity.”
Elsewhere on finals day, Leicester Tigers lock horns with Wasps with a spot in the top three on the line.
Tigers finished third last season and boast statistically the strongest defence in the competition, but after beating last season’s Under 18 Academy Competition Champions Saracens on their way to Finals Day, Wasps will be full of confidence for success.
Exeter Chiefs, who finished fifth overall last season, will look to do the same again as they take on Worcester Warriors.
The West Midlands outfit won one more game than Chiefs in the regular U18 season, but like their senior side, Exeter’s attacking play has lit up their contests and they have scored the third-most tries overall.
12.30pm: 3rd / 4th place play-off – Wasps v Leicester Tigers
2.30pm: 5th / 6th place play-off – Exeter Chiefs v Worcester Warriors
4.30pm: Under 18 Academy Competition Final – London Irish v Gloucester Rugby
The Premiership Rugby U18 Academy Competition Finals Day will take place at Allianz Park on Monday 15 February from 12.30pm to 6pm. Entrance is free of charge.