According to Premiership Rugby statistics, no fewer than 169 players have made their debut in the Anglo Welsh Cup competition [as of November 2016]. Despite it becoming more of a lottery on who plays in it over the last few years, with some sides using it as a developmental competition and others targeting it as a chance of silverware. The benefits are clear in the quality and respect it holds, as the ‘birthplace of rugby stars’.
Our writer Robert Rees firstly looks at three players who have made their debut through the tournament, and gone on to bigger, better careers. He then breaks down the competition now, and what the future looks like for the Anglo Welsh Cup tier of rugby in the UK.
Anglo Welsh Cup; birthplace of rugby stars
The Harlequins flanker made his Quins debut against London Irish, and has talked about how it developed him as a player. Nine years on from that match, he’s a regular starter for one of England’s top teams and has played nearly 130 times for them. Scoring 15 tries in the process.
Wallace may not have reached the heights of the others on this list, but sealing your spot in an elite Aviva Premiership squad for the biggest part of a decade, is no mean feat and deserves just a much credit.
The highlight of his career was his selection for England in the squad to face the Barbarians in the summer of 2014. Although he is yet to get capped in a full International, it proves his quality was recognised by the national setup. And thus, establishes that the Anglo Welsh Cup was a good platform in which to develop players from.
The most famous of players on this list, Jason Robinson played much of his career in the Anglo Welsh Cup [in the Pilkington Cup/Powergen Cup era]. Displaying a dynamo-stamina and elusive speed, that disputed his 5 foot 8 inch stature.
Having made only 13 appearances in rugby union for Bath, the code-swapping fullback/wing made the most of what each sport offered. His time with Wigan earned him caps for England and Great Britain.
Robinson then headed to Sale, where he appeared in many English club rugby championships. It has to be regarded as the club that set him on his way to being the 2003 World Cup winner and rugby dual code legend that he is. Going on to play over 150 times for Sale in the AW Cup and in when his side was promoted, in the Premiership and European club rugby competition.
Dual Code Champion developed from Anglo Welsh Cup level to RWC heights
Yes, the 2003 World Cup will most likely be his fondest rugby memory, but it’s also worth noting that he represented the British and Irish Lions on five occasions. An honour which has been bestowed on only 835 men since it’s inception over 100 years ago.
Rugby League would have no doubt helped him, but as many players who cross the code from union to league or vice versa, it’s not an easy route to make. Not everyone gets a hero status in both. Jason Robinson was able to hold that title, and showed that size was no limiter on ‘pride and passion’.
Note: Robinson had a busy schedule in 2000. He played for Wigan in Rugby League grand final, before returning to play rugby for England – all in the same calendar season!
The Saracens star who has made a supreme breakthrough over the last two seasons, led Saracens to the Anglo Welsh Cup back in 2015 (see main photo). Known then as the LV Cup, it put his name out in the public domain, before regularly appearing in their first XV Saries team. Now the feature forward and the man that Saracens will build their team around. With 14 England caps and 3 British and Irish Lions appearances to his credit, he is certainly a star now, and a superstar for the future.
The second row forward had no issue in stepping up from the AW Cup to the Aviva Premiership, proving that it can indeed be ‘a birthplace for rugby stars’ despite it decreasing in value over recent years (in terms of development).
Itoje is well regarded as the best forward in World Rugby – missing out on the coveted International Player of the Year award to Beauden Barrett. Many believe he can perhaps hold that description, from being given a chance in the 2015 AW Cup, before being promoted to the first team. A monumental rise, from Under 20 status to being a man who can influence the outcome of an International test match.
Euro POTY '16
Six Nations Grand Slam
Six Nations title
Premiership x 2
Champions Cup x 2
He's 22 ? pic.twitter.com/3Ly9OoZx8m
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) May 13, 2017
The 23 year old, who ‘rocked the rugby world’ back in 2016, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, but surely proving that you can do something special, if given an opportunity. Itoje’s came via the AW Cup, and the player acknowledges that pathway often.
Rugby clubs view Anglo Welsh Cup as valuable prize
With European cups becoming more and more fought over by the richer European clubs, the Aviva Premiership is not guaranteed that a UK club will reign over the continent. Saracens have, but recent history suggests the silverware on offer is usually back in English competition Knowing this, the Anglo Welsh Cup has turned to be the focus of many English sides, as a high-chance of silverware.
This has meant to a degree, a loss of the developmental platform for those who remain using it as such. The Welsh sides and some of the poorer English sides have placed a higher value on development factor, rather than the prize on offer. (LWOR use the term ‘poorer’ loosely)
These clubs put their developmental or U23 sides out; some will also use the AW Cup for players returning from injury, only to face a ‘de facto premier’ squad that would compete well in Europe’s top tier. Hardly a fair comparison or platform to work with. Looking at the current standings, the leading sides reflect their strengths of the Premiership squads–less about developing the wider base across the league.
Future of AW Cup may need changes to Structure
To better reflect the marketing phrase ‘Old Rivals, New Heroes’ the Anglo Welsh Cup may need changes to the structure. English teams appear to be strongest, and while that is to do with the larger pool of talent, it can also be in that their academies and development managers are fully focused on the entire organization. Lesser teams focus from the top down, and never see the AW Cup as the step-up that it should be.
Possibly, the AW Cup gets scrapped and the WRU alongside the RFU, PRL and PRW get together and develop a season of A league fixtures. Crucially, ruling only players Under 23 be eligible, with a possibility of a 3 ‘over aged’ players added in as a quota for the returning wounded.
It would provide a thorough development competition, including a televised platform and a fair competition which can provide the next generation of athletes. In respect of the three players highlighted, and the 169 players who used the AW Cup as the means to step-up, the ethos of the competition will never change.
And long may it continue.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images