- The 2017/18 AASE League involves 14 teams with players aged 16-18
- Each side is linked to a professional academy
- View all the fixtures and results here
Double European champions Saracens are a club whose success is built on their homegrown stars and the ability to develop talent – but where do these young players come from?
Well, the answer, or at least part of the answer, is from the St Albans-based Oaklands College who compete in the AASE League.
We caught up with the further education college’s head of rugby Chris Waring to find out how the next generation of rugby stars are being developed.
The AASE League is a competition for players aged 16-18 and contested between 14 colleges across the country, all of which are linked with professional academies.
Some of the biggest talents in English professional rugby honed their skills in the competition and Oaklands College has been at the forefront for the past nine years.
“The likes of Nathan Earle, Nick Tompkins, Jackson Wray – they all came through Oaklands,” said Waring.
“We’ve got a steady stream of players who are now playing in the top flight – Hayden Thompson-Stringer is a prop at Sarries, George Perkins has just moved to Bristol, Jack Singleton is at Worcester and Nick Auterac is at Bath.
“We give an opportunity to the players who aren’t on the radar with schools or representative rugby prior to the age of 16.
“We have players coming through our door at the start of their time here and you see something different in them, they haven’t quite been found yet, you nurture that and you end up with a pretty strong player.”
Itoje, Kruis, Isiekwe, Kpoku?
You heard the name here first – Joel Kpoku.
Saracens seem to have a knack of fielding stellar second-rows and in the Oaklands College-produced Joel Kpoku, they have another star in the making.
After a string of dominant performances in the AASE League last term Kpoku was signed to a senior academy deal at the north-London club and also featured in the Anglo-Welsh Cup last year.
Waring added: “Joel’s in his first year in the senior academy at Sarries and his brother Jonathan’s on our programme as well – they’re twins.
“Jonathan had a difficult time with some health problems so he’s stayed back a year but he’s looking promising and could follow Joel into Sarries as well.
“They’re two giant second-rows but they’re not identical, you wouldn’t think they’re twins. They’re both enormous human beings and they’re very, very good rugby players.
“You don’t really get 18-year-old lads that sort of size or that sort of shape that come through often, 18 stone, 6’7’’ – they’ve got bright futures.”
Aiming for the top
Waring has been involved at Oaklands for over a decade, first as an assistant coach and in the last two years as head of rugby – he’s witnessed plenty of change in his time.
Last season the College were rated as favourites to go all the way in the AASE League after an impressive group stage, but lost out to Gosforth Academy who went on to be defeated by Exeter College in the final.
This season Waring’s side have won five out of six games, including gaining revenge on Gosforth with an 18-17 triumph earlier this week, and the man at the helm is targeting a first crown.
“When we started I think we had one rugby pitch, a gym with a couple of dusty old machines in it and a couple of barbells,” explained Waring.
“Three or four years ago we had a new build, an eight-court sports hall, a performance gym and some artificial pitches, it’s really helped develop us.
“You don’t really know year to year what kind of quality you’re going to get but we’ve got some depth this year and some great players.
“As a programme we’re more focused on developing the lads as rugby players rather than silverware but it’s a bonus to be able to get to finals and compete.
“We haven’t won a final before, we’ve got to a few but been beaten by Hartpury College.
“Losing to Gosforth last year was gutting so I think a final would be nice! To do one better than last year would be a real success.”