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  • Charles Patterson

Three Premiership Cup Games to Keep an Eye On

The Premiership Rugby Cup has gone through several transformations over the years. Starting life as the RFU Knockout Cup, which was replaced with the Anglo-Welsh Cup in the mid-noughties. This worked well until Welsh rugby’s decline and became a closed-shop tournament for Premiership clubs ahead of the 2018-19 season. This year sees the introduction of Championship teams to shake up the format following the demise of Wasps, Worcester Warriors and London Irish.

Here are three matches you should be excited for:

Ealing Trailfinders v Northampton Saints – Sunday 10th September, 1pm (live on TNT Sports)

After a rocky start to life in the Championship ten seasons ago, Ealing have bounced back and are now one of the teams to beat in that division. With a host of big name players you wouldn’t expect to see in the second tier, it’s important to remember that Ealing are only still in the Premiership because of the Premiership ground criteria – criteria which seems to have been thrown out of the window for this new iteration of the Premiership Rugby Cup. Northampton will be the visitors on matchday one.

Last season, Ealing narrowly missed out on back-to-back league and cup doubles, with Jersey Reds snatching the league crown from them. Ealing won the Championship Cup on home turf though and have started pre-season strongly this year with a 26-20 victory over Zebre, having been 10-0 down in the first half. Tries from Jonah Holmes, Matt Cornish and Reuben Bird-Tulloch (three players all with Premiership experience), and three conversions from Steven Shingler, who surely could have earned Welsh caps had he been born a few years later.

Northampton have been mainstays in the Premiership since winning promotion back to the division ahead of the 2008-09 season. After a rocky start last year, they consolidated fourth place, losing in the play-off semi final to eventual winners Saracens. It’ll be a very different Saints side who line up at Trailfinders Sports Ground, with many of their internationals away at the World Cup.

Pre-season started down the A428 for Northampton at local rivals Bedford, a club they share a strategic partnership with. In fact, seven of Northampton’s starting lineup for that match have Championship experience with Bedford. Electric full-back George Hendy scored twice in quick succession in the first half with other tries coming from Australian bulldozer Angus Scott-Young, and academy flanker Henry Pollock. Kicks came from James Grayson, who will surely take the fly-half spot in this opening match.

The scoreline didn’t go in Saints’ favour though, losing to Bedford for the first time in 29 years by a score of 33-24. At the time of writing, Saints have one more friendly to come, against Barbarians on 2nd September – the team named for that does include some more experience with Paul Hill and Callum Braley both included.

This could well be a close match, but I think Northampton’s quality will shine though. It’ll be huge for Championship rugby if Ealing can take this match, especially with it being live on TV and will surely reignite the debate about promotion, ring-fencing and stadium criteria.

Prediction: Saints by 5

Sale Sharks v Bedford Blues – Saturday 9th September, 5.30pm

After an impressive Premiership season in which they finished runners-up to Saracens, Sale will be looking to kick on and go one better this time around. It’s the cup first though, and with big names like Luke Cowan-Dickie, Agustin Creevy, George Ford and Manu Tuilagi all missing, it’ll be a chance for some younger names to stake a claim.

With no friendlies played, it appears the Sharks will be using this tournament to give game time to plenty of players – if available, Rekeiti Ma’asi-White can light up the backline, while there’s still a lot of experience in the front row with the likes of Tommy Taylor, Ross Harrison and Simon McIntyre. Asher Opoku is an up-and-coming prop and will hopefully get some gametime.

Bedford finished fourth in the Championship last season but were lightyears away from the top three of Ealing, Jersey and Coventry. They’ll be hoping to put last season’s poor away form to bed so they can find some consistency going forward.

Pre-season has gone well for Bedford, their two friendlies bringing victories over Swansea and Northampton. But as has always been the Blues way, it’s been a case of some free-flowing attacking rugby and some lacklustre defending. It’s the backs that always dominate the headlines – Dean Adamson is swiftly closing in on being Bedford’s all-time record try-scorer in his second stint at the club, while Ethan Grayson (brother of Northampton’s James) has returned to the club on a short term deal following London Irish’s collapse.

You’d imagine Sale will see this one out fairly easily, but it’s bound to be a fast-paced, end-to-end affair.

Prediction: Sale by 15 in a high-scoring contest

Harlequins v Saracens – Sunday 1st October, 2.30pm (live on TNT Sports)

Almost a year to the day since the two London rivals played each other in this competition, Saracens visit the Stoop once again. Last year’s match saw 71 points shared, Quins sneaking victory. With both sides missing large chunks of their first-choice squads through World Cup call-ups, this could be another cracker full of home-grown talent.

With Quins having brought in the experience of Joe Launchbury and Jarrod Evans as ready-made replacements for Charlie Matthews and Tommaso Allan, all eyes will be on how the ex-London Irish duo of Chandler Cunningham-South and Will Joseph will slot in. Joseph in particular seems to be a good move, as he plays in a similar style to the departing Joe Marchant.

There are five new faces for Sarries who will be looking to make an immediate impression. Props Tom West and Ollie Hoskins provide a wealth of Premiership experience in the front row, while Tom Willis will have a huge point to prove as he stays at home while brother Jack is across the channel with England. Gareth Simpson may find game time hard to get to begin with – Springbok scrum-half Ivan van Zyl and Welsh cap Aled Davies are both still in the UK. The real excitement comes at full-back with the 350+ appearances of Alex Goode up against the youth of Tom Parton.

With neither side having played any pre-season matches, they’ll both be looking to hit the ground running but you can expect some errors in the early stages while new partnerships gel, and new players fit into the systems around them.

Prediction: Tough to call, but Saracens by 8

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