AND THEN there were four. After four pulsating rounds of Anglo-Welsh Cup action the race for the 2016-17 title is now down to just an elite quartet of teams.
Those four teams will battle it out on 11 & 12 March for a place in the Final on the following weekend with Saracens and Exeter Chiefs grabbing first and second seeds to win home advantage in the last four.
Saracens, the number one seeds will host Leicester Tigers in a re-run of last weekend’s final pool stage match, at 6pm on Saturday 11 March with Harlequins travelling to Devon a day later for a 3pm kick.
· Saturday 11 March (6pm) Saracens v Leicester Tigers
· Sunday 12 March (3pm) Exeter Chiefs v Harlequins
The Anglo-Welsh Cup, which in some shape or form had been running for the last 45 years, took a season off – and the competition will be bigger and better than ever after being restored to its natural place.
This season sees BT Sport take up the television rights for the first time, having committed to doubling the screening of live matches and the Final will be staged at the Twickenham Stoop on Sunday 19 March.
It all kicked off live on TV on the weekend of November 4 with two mouth-watering ties – Bath Rugby first entertain Leicester Tigers at the Rec on the Friday night, before the cameras moved to the Stoop a day later for Harlequins versus Exeter Chiefs.
Established in 1972, the cup pre-dates the existence of league competition in England and has been lifted by some legendary sides both before and since the onset of professionalism.
Bath have the warmest memories of the all-conquering sides in the 80s and 90s that swept to an incredible ten final victories in the space of 13 years.
And the 2003 expansion has added another competitive dimension to the cup, with Ospreys and Cardiff Blues among the list of winners since the turn of the millennium.
“Everyone at Premiership Rugby is delighted to see the return of the Anglo-Welsh competition and the clubs can’t wait to get started,” said Phil Winstanley, rugby director at Premiership Rugby.
“The competition has played a huge role in the development of young talent in both England and Wales.
“England’s recent success in the Under-20s World Cup shows there is a depth of talent in English rugby like never before and I can’t wait to see the current crop get their chance in first team rugby via the Anglo-Welsh Cup.”
In recent times the competition has also developed into the breeding ground for some of the best British talent in the game – and a precursor of things to come in Aviva Premiership Rugby.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup proved the first major trophy in Exeter Chiefs’ 143-year history – fittingly in front of their own fans at Sandy Park – when they toppled Northampton Saints in 2014.
“The big thing for me is to see the players get a reward,” said head coach Rob Baxter at the time. “They’ve worked so hard this season and we’ve not always had the reward for our hard work.”
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Indeed, that hard work continued to pay off as fast forward two years and the nucleus of that triumphant Exeter side, including England backs Jack Nowell and Henry Slade, appeared in their first Aviva Premiership Rugby final back in May.
And don’t forget how far Saracens, the victors that day at Twickenham, have come too – this time 18 months ago, they had not lifted a trophy since 2011.
But their Anglo-Welsh Cup success over the defending champions Exeter in 2015 sparked a goldrush that few have matched in domestic rugby, with back-to-back Aviva Premiership Rugby titles and a European Champions Cup to boot.
No player encapsulates their meteoric rise more so than Maro Itoje, who skippered Saracens the day of the Franklin’s Gardens final and was then best known for his work with the England Under-20s.
“I am so happy for everyone involved, it was such a massive team effort. To win it that way was amazing,” said Itoje following his first Saracens success.
“We knew what our plan was and knew they would have their moments but we stuck to it and it has paid off.
“There has been a lot of work that has gone on behind the scenes and the coaches have believed in the team since day one, so I’m really thankful we have been able to repay their faith.”
Now the 21-year-old Itoje is fast becoming a household name after being simply irrepressible in England’s engine room during the historic Test series whitewash in Australia – and it begs the question of how much more talent is set to shine in the competition this time around.
There is reason to believe that this year’s edition will be packed with more talent than ever before, as senior players across all 16 clubs bid to fend off competition from the rising stars.
In Manchester this summer, the England romped to victory at the World Rugby Under-20 Championship after beating Ireland 45-21 in the final.
But Aviva Premiership Rugby clubs would be foolish to discount Welsh claims this year – their youngsters overturned England on the way to the country’s first-ever title, let alone Grand Slam, at the 2016 Under-20s Six Nations.
2014-15 Saracens 23 Exeter Chiefs 20
2013-14 Exeter Chiefs 15 Northampton Saints 8
2012-13 Harlequins 32 Sale Sharks 14
2011-12 Leicester Tigers 26 Northampton Saints 14
2010-11 Gloucester Rugby 34 Newcastle Falcons 7
2009-10 Northampton Saints 30 Gloucester Rugby 24
2008-09 Cardiff Blues 50 Northampton Saints 12
2007-08 Ospreys 23 Leicester Tigers 6
2006-07 Leicester Tigers 41 Ospreys 35
2005-06 London Wasps 26 Llanelli Scarlets 10