Premiership Rugby Shield 2019-20 fixtures announced
Saracens Storm will kick-off their Premiership Rugby Shield defence away at 2014 champions Bath United, with the competition getting underway in the week commencing November 25.
The Storm romped to a 55-14 victory over Newcastle Falcons A in last season’s final at Kingston Park, contributing their part to the club’s success in a campaign that saw them crowned both domestic and European champions.
Following the first team’s relegation from Gallagher Premiership Rugby last term, the Falcons – who topped the Northern Conference on their way to the final – make way for the returning London Irish.
Their arrival in the Southern Pool means Gloucester United move to the Northern group, where there will be a tasty season opener between Midlands rivals Northampton Wanderers and Wasps in round one.
Irish begin their campaign at home to Bristol Bears A, but face arguably their toughest challenge in round two, when they entertain the Storm in the week commencing December 16.
In the same round of games, Bath travel to Exeter Braves for a West Country derby where there will be all to play for.
Corin Palmer – head of elite performance and player development at Premiership Rugby – sees how the competition fits perfectly into the player and coach pathway in England.
He said: “The Premiership Rugby Shield is a vital component of our Premiership Rugby season structure and a competitive pathway that ensures Academy players get the chance to play alongside senior professionals to prepare them for Gallagher Premiership Rugby.
“It’s not just for academy players though – with first-team matchday squads limited to 23 players, we need to ensure our senior players have the opportunity to play meaningful, competitive rugby as well. Last season the average age in the competition was 22, compared to 25 in Gallagher Premiership Rugby.
“It’s a case of keeping those players match fit and ready when called upon, and to prepare some really good young players so they can step up to that level, too.
“The Shield works hand-in-hand with the Premiership Rugby Cup as a pathway to Gallagher Premiership Rugby and it is a vital stepping stone in a player’s journey.”
Palmer expects some exciting encounters early in the competition and believes it will once again play a vital role in the rugby season.
He added: “There are a lot of mouth-watering fixtures to look forward to.
“With the Midlands derby and with Exeter and Harlequins going head-to-head – who are both traditionally very strong – there’ll be two brilliant matches in round one.
“Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see how London Irish front up against a very strong Saracens side in round two, and I’m really excited for it to get going.”
The likes of Andy Christie and Manu Vunipola were crucial parts of the Storm’s success last season and went on to make their first-team debuts in the latter stages of the top-flight campaign.
Palmer explains how dominant performances in the Shield facilitate progression and can contribute to a mentality shared throughout a club.
He added: “Players know if they do well, they’ll get picked for the Premiership Cup and then go on to be picked for Gallagher Premiership Rugby.
“The exposure they get from this competition gives them invaluable experience going forward.
“Last season, Premiership Shield matches were really well attended.
“Supporters are excited about being able to see the next generation of players coming through, as well as some of the senior players perhaps returning from injury. No doubt success helps a club as a whole – learning to win at this stage is vitally important and being able to win that title is obviously a significant feather in the cap.
“The season starts a lot later than usual this year due to the Rugby World Cup, but all of the players will be back in pre-season by now and raring to go. They’ll be looking forward to the Premiership Rugby Shield in November, and training alongside their first-team peers vying to develop as much as they can.”