After one week back for Aviva Premiership action, after Champions Cup play, English and Welsh sides switch focus again to the returning Anglo Welsh Cup. The competition didn’t take place last season, but returns for 2016/17 and it needs to regain its momentum and position as a ‘place to see future stars’.
The Anglo Welsh Cup (AWC) has evolved a lot since its days as the traditional knockout cup for English clubs. Now, it is best promoted as an opportunity for younger players to get first team experience in a competitive environment. Cynics however say it is a reserve competition to fill game weeks, whilst International matches take place. Last Word On Rugby disagree.
One good measure of the tournament’s worth, is to look back at the Breakthrough Award winners from the past few years. As the following list shows–the England side today has benefited significantly from players helped into an early opportunity directly through their clubs performances in the AWC and matches played in Autumn.
Enjoy this recap by LWOR Aviva Premiership reporter James Barker.
2012 – Jonny May
After three consecutive final visits, Gloucester unleashed another speedster in the form of Jonny May. He scored a try from full back in round one, but only featured in one further group game as the ‘Cherry and Whites’ were eliminated at the group stage. An impressive achievement, in his first season of regular first-team action–a breakout year indeed.
He went on to make his England debut just a year later in Argentina, and truly announced himself to a global audience with that try against New Zealand in 2014 (view clip at 2.19 min). A part of the Rugby World Cup side, injury has seen him miss most of 2016, but he has come back strong in scoring tries for Glaws. May will hope to solve Eddie Jones’ wing problems in the Autumn Internationals.
2013 – Jack Nowell
Jack Nowell (see main picture) followed May, by winning this award and going on to make his England debut a year later. Both featured in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, with Nowell a member of the successful England side that sweep Australia in June. He appears to have a strong place with the current squad.
Nowell scored three tries in four AWC games–at the age of 19–and beat another rival England wing [one Marland Yarde] for the Breakthrough Player title. He has become a key part of the Exeter Chiefs side and featured in big Champions Cup matches and an Aviva Premiership Play-Off Final. Still only 23 years old, his future looks bright.
2014 – Ollie Devoto
In 2013/14 Ollie Devoto made it a hat-trick of West Country backs to win the AWC award. On the way, he helped Bath reach the semi-finals, where they lost to his current side, the Exeter Chiefs. Devoto had to wait slightly longer than May and Nowell to progress into the England side, and he has yet to establish himself in Eddie Jones’ revitalized side.
He has however had to shrug off the ‘utility back’ tag that often prevents versatile players from nailing down a starting spot [think Beauden Barrett before 2016]. He appears to have settled on the outside centre position for the Chiefs. Even though England are well stocked here; despite their long injury list, Devoto is waiting his chance thanks to the chances provided in the AWC.
2015 – Tom Collins
The last Anglo Welsh Cup in 2014/15 saw another wing claim the award: Northampton Saints’ Tom Collins.
While he has yet to set up to the England side; as the previous winners have done, he has continued to establish himself at club level with 10 appearances in 2015/16. Still only 22, Collins will probably get further opportunities in this year’s AWC to show his talents.
When another raft of unfamiliar names takes to the field over the next two weekends, this should be celebrated and encouraged. The above list proves that the Anglo Welsh Cup provides benefits to both club and country, as coaches gamble on youth to promote a pathway to higher honours.
Long may it last. ‘bechgyn pob lwc!’
“Main photo credit”