The competition has a rich and proud history so thank goodness it's back
Most of us were so wrapped up in the World Cup last autumn that the absence of the Anglo-Welsh Cup barely registered. Yet the decision not to play this long-running competition – in its original guise, it predates the World Cup and official leagues by 16 years – was a crying shame.
Of course it was inevitable, with so much rugby to be squeezed into the calendar, but the competition is responsible for some of the greatest moments and memories in the English game.
Back in the Seventies, the cup final at Twickenham was one of the highlights of the sporting year, and I remember Gosforth’s back-to-back triumphs, Leicester’s hat-trick under Chalkie White and the remarkable Bath dominance that stretched from 1984 to the pro era because I was there for each and every one.
You never wanted to miss the cup final and for a long time the world record attendance for a club game was the 59,300 that watched Bath beat Leicester in 1989.
Sponsors came and went but the competition stood resolute. Saracens gave Nigel Wray a first trophy in 1998, Newcastle won high-scoring humdingers in 2001 and 2004, and London Irish had Twickenham’s bars reverberating to The Fields of Athenry in 2002.
The cutting-off of amateur clubs was a sad day but had to happen for safety reasons, and in 2005-06 the Welsh regions joined in and it became the Anglo-Welsh entity we know today.
Previous winners (since addition of Welsh regions)
2015 Saracens 23 Exeter 20
2014 Exeter 15 Northampton 8
2013 Harlequins 32 Sale 14
2012 Leicester 26 Northampton 14
2011 Gloucester 34 Newcastle 7
2010 Northampton 30 Gloucester 24
2009 Cardiff 50 Northampton 12
2008 Ospreys 23 Leicester 6
2007 Leicester 41 Ospreys 35
2006 London Wasps 26 Llanelli Scarlets 10
Cup final attendances remained at over 70,000 well into the Noughties but the 2009 final, when the great Bleddyn Williams, a few months before his death, watched Cardiff Blues thrash Gloucester from the press box, was the last played at HQ.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup was devalued by such a move but that’s not to belittle it. According to Premiership Rugby, no fewer than 169 current Premiership players made their club debuts in the cup and its worth as a development tool is undisputed.
One of those 169 was Quins flanker Luke Wallace, who says: “The Anglo-Welsh Cup was my first game for Harlequins, against London Irish back in my first season with the club. I hadn’t been involved in the first team until that point, so it was a great experience and a great way to develop my game at that early stage.
“The tournament gives young guys the chance to play against top-quality opposition. When we won the tournament in 2013, we played against a full-strength Bath and Sale side. That was a building block for where I am now.”
Maro Itoje was seen as a highly promising youngster when he led Saracens to the cup in 2015 and now he’s a world-class operator – things can happen quickly when you’re given an opportunity.
Sale will give rugby league convert Josh Charnley a union debut tonight as the Sharks host Wasps, and who’s to say he won’t follow in the footsteps of Jason Robinson, who made his Sale debut in a fourth-round cup tie against Coventry one day shy of 16 years ago.
Charnley, who scored 165 tries in 176 appearances for Wigan Warriors, has only been training with his new Premiership team-mates for two weeks and is on the bench tonight.
“I’d rather be out there and learning it and get chucked straight in the deep end and learn from my mistakes,” says the 25-year-old.
“I’m always asking the lads what position I should be in and where I’m at. It’s going to take time, it’s like any job you’re new to.
“If you’re a right-winger in league you stay on the right side, you don’t really tend to go across. But in union you’re always moving. It’s just picking up where to be in the right time. It’s totally different, it’s a different ball game.”
Sale are one of only two current Premiership clubs never to have won the cup in its 45-year history and the other, Worcester Warriors, find themselves facing a potentially dangerous animal in Bristol, who will be under Mark Tainton’s management after the decision to suspend Andy Robinson because of poor results.
“I know Andy well, he was my coach at Edinburgh,” says Worcester defence coach Simon Cross, who is taking charge of the team for their cup campaign. “He’s a fantastic coach and I feel very sorry that he’s been suspended.
“Bristol are always dangerous opponents, every game we play against them is tough. But it’s a pretty serious squad we’ve picked. Chris Pennell and Dewald Potgieter are senior players back from injury and there are a number of young guys in the side.
“Josh Adams deserves another chance to impress on the wing, Jack Singleton has been going very well at hooker, and I’m looking forward to seeing what (second-row) Andrew Kitchener has to offer. It’s a great mix and it should be an exciting game.”
Singleton scored four tries for England U20 against Italy this year and he, Kitchener and flanker Huw Taylor – also on duty tonight – played in the team that won the World Championship final in June. Worcester give a debut to Aussie scrum-half Michael Dowsett, who arrived in England last Saturday and has trained and attended all this week’s meetings – “He just about stayed awake with the jet lag!” says Cross.
Gloucester, the inaugural winners in 1972, will wear a special shirt featuring a poppy design to mark Remembrance Day for their matches this and next weekend, against Saracens and Northampton.
The shirt is available as a limited-edition purchase (click here) and £5 from each purchase will be donated to the Royal British Legion. Gloucester believe they’re the first rugby union club to partner with the Royal British Legion in this way.
There will be increased TV exposure for the Anglo-Welsh Cup this season after BT Sport took up the rights. The first-round games at Bath and Quins will be shown live, and there will be a highlights programme on ITV on Sunday evening.
For those unfamiliar with the competition, each team plays four matches against sides from other pools while competing for points in their own pool. The pool winners advance to the semi-finals, with the final taking place at The Stoop on Sunday 19 March. The Welsh clubs are in Pro12 action this weekend so make their entrance next week.
Anglo-Welsh Cup first-round fixtures
Fri 4 Nov: Worcester v Bristol (7.45), Bath v Leicester (7.45), Sale v Wasps (8.15)
Sat 5 Nov: Gloucester v Saracens (3), Harlequins v Exeter (5.30)
Sun 6 Nov: Newcastle v Northampton (3)