Newcastle Falcons’ AASE under-18s team play their second successive national final on Wednesday when they take on Hartpury College (Gloucester) at Saracens’ Allianz Park.
The 4.15pm kick-off will be streamed live on RFU.com and shown on FreeSports TV (Freeview channel 95, Sky 424, Freesat 252, TalkTalkTV 95 and BT 95), AASE scheme co-ordinator PJ Butler delighted by the progress his young side have shown this season.
“Essentially AASE is a programme which is linked to the Premiership Rugby Academies, so just about everybody under that umbrella has got an AASE scheme affiliated with a local college or school,” said Butler, who runs the scheme at Gosforth Academy.
“The clubs generally put some resource into that facility and work in partnership with the school to get some of their academy players in there, because it’s a high performance environment in which there’s more access time for the players.
“All of the AASE (Achieving Academic and Sporting Excellence) players do a full course of A-Levels or BTecs just like any other students in the sixth form, and they also get timetabled rugby sessions as well as all of their other rugby stuff outside of curriculum time. They’re only given time off lessons to play matches, and other than that they have to keep on top of all their studies if they want to remain in the team.
“In some AASE programmes around the country they’re all put on the same course but here we are big believers in that we want the boys to have as many potential exit routes as possible, so they take a wide range of academic courses. Some are really academic boys who want to go off to top universities, and others will be looking at apprenticeships or wanting to stay in sport. The fact that the players aren’t all funnelled into one course widens our net in terms of who we are able to recruit, and it works well for us.”
AASE graduates to have made it through to the Falcons’ professional ranks include the likes of Callum Chick, Jamie Blamire and George McGuigan, the class of 2017 having shown plenty of promise.
Butler said: “We’ve got a young team this year and they’re improving week to week. We won the northern league again for the second year running, and to do it with such a young side was a really good return. We’ve progressed well over the season and the lads really deserve the chance to go down to London and play in a national final.
“We played six games in phase one and based on our position we qualified for the play-offs. We did OK in phase one and had some really good games, but were a bit in and out. Through the play-offs we’ve improved and put in some really good results, and in some ways have probably exceeded expectations.”
Priming supporters to expect a high-tempo game, he added: “It’s no secret that we do like to play quite a fast and exciting style of rugby with lots of offloads, trying to keep the ball alive.
“Last year that was a real shock to teams because it was a bit of a change in philosophy, but this year people have known what to expect and have prepared for that threat. That has meant we’ve had to be a little bit more flexible in what we do at times, and the players have shown good awareness in playing the picture that they see in front of them.
“We had a good season last year in making the national final, and even though the majority of that squad have now left us we’ve been able to back it up with a much younger group. That’s especially pleasing, although we don’t necessarily view match results as the number one indicator of where our programme is at.
“Most important to us is the fact that our performances have been really good, we’ve improved week on week and it’s a bit of an endorsement of our programme that we’ve had back-to-back national finals with very different groups of players.
“Only three of the players who started last year’s final are in our 23 for Wednesday, with 14 of the lads being first years. Having a few of those older boys is helpful because they’ve played on that stage before with the TV cameras, the live stream and the big screen. They’ll have a bit to offer the group in terms of dealing with the occasion, and hopefully that can stand us in good stead.”
Well aware of what calibre of opponent awaits his side, Butler said: “Anyone who knows rugby has heard of Hartpury, and they’re pretty much the gold standard in terms of winning things at this level.
“Their under-18s have only been beaten a couple of times in the last decade so we know what we’re up against, and they’ll probably be going into the final expecting to win. From our end we’ll go there and play our own game, and we’ll give it our best shot.”