The best schools rugby players in England will converge on Corbridge on Sunday to compete for one of the most coveted prizes in the junior sporting calendar.
The Tynedale RFC School Rugby Festival has grown in stature to become arguably the biggest 15-a-side tournament on the circuit, reigning champions Stowe School coming up from Buckinghamshire to defend their under-18s crown.
Beaten finalists St Pauls of London form part of a field including teams from Devon, Somerset, Yorkshire and the North East, with Durham, Yarm and RGS Newcastle leading the local charge.
Organiser Richie Gledson said: “The event has been going for 15 years now, and has been labelled as the biggest 15-a-side pre-season festival in schools rugby in some of the national media coverage we have had.
“Everyone has jumped on the sevens bandwagon, but for 15s we are not aware of any tournament with either the size or quality of the competition that we have got.”
Games are played in two halves of 10 minutes at both under-18s and 15s levels, previous winners including Merchiston Castle of Edinburgh, QEGS Wakefield, Filton College, Colston’s and RGS Newcastle.
“Stowe will be major contenders, as will Durham School after going on a good run in last year’s NatWest Cup,” said Gledson.
“Hymers from Hull, led by former Blaydon and Northumbria University coach Nick Gandy, could prove to be strong contenders, and we have a Blundell’s side coming up from Devon who won’t just be here to make up the numbers.”
Mixing local with national considerations, the Northumbrian added: “The tournament is growing every year, and it is great to have so much North East involvement as well as the teams we have coming from all over the country.
“We have teams from Alnwick and Morpeth who have combined their state school teams with the local rugby clubs to form a combined sides, and it is not just about private schools.”
“Schools rugby occupies an importance in rugby that you don’t always see in other sports, and some of the players on show this weekend will be the stars of the future.
“The games are open and entertaining, and there is a huge amount of talent out there.”
With entry to Corbridge’s picturesque Tynedale Park priced £5 on the day, Gledson said: “It is great that Tynedale can stage an event like this, and it is the ideal venue for it.
“There are not many five-pitch grounds in the North East, and as well as the infrastructure it is also one of the most scenic rugby clubs on the circuit.
“They have facilities up to National One standard, and for those who will go on to study or work in the North East it is a great chance for Tynedale to showcase themselves to a potential new crop of players.”
Meanwhile, Newcastle Falcons’ director of rugby Dean Richards is considering throwing brothers Alesana and Anitelea Tuilagi straight into action when they kick off their Premiership season at Leicester a week on Saturday.
Richards is hopeful the Samoan pair will arrive this week, explaining: “In theory they should be available against Leicester, and I would like to think they will be here this week.
“You can adopt two approaches when it comes to deciding when is the right time to put them in.
“You can take the English approach and say they have to have a 12-week pre-season, or you can accept the fact they have been working hard themselves prior to coming here, and throw them straight in.
“That would be the French approach, and I think that is the way we will probably go.”