They might have lost 21-15 but there was something rather special about watching the England U20s in action against France U20s on Friday night.
The prestige of playing this level of rugby has always been known, however the Junior World Cup win back in June has increased the interest and scrutiny of the team, and the public appreciation of the achievement of representing the U20s.
What made last night so special though was just how short it made the distance from school 1st XV to the England senior side appear. Eleven players in the 23-man squad against France were playing for the England U18s and their school 1st XVâ€™s last year, five more were a part of that U20s JWC winning squad.
Perhaps even more exciting are the stories of some who have progressed from the U20s since than JWC win just seven months ago. Jack Nowell starts for England this evening, and his wing partner from that final in June, Anthony Watson, travels with the squad. Watson was in his school 1st XV as recently as the 2011/12 season.
In the England Saxons the likes of Henry Slade, Sam Hill, Scott Wilson, and Elliot Stooke have all been involved over the past couple of weeks, having played for the U20s last year.
The stepping-stones from School 1st XV to the England squad are clearer than ever to see, and the increased profile of the U20s only serves to heighten it.
Some of those in their school colours today, or dancing their way through the 7s season might well find themselves on this stage in no more than a year, and as the likes of Watson have shown, a year later you could be banging on the door of the England team, it is that close.
That is what made it so special for us at Fifteen Rugby to watch as well, players that we spent all of last year watching in action for their schools were out there representing their country.
What a joy it was to see Maro Itoje, a former One to Watch, scoring in the second half. What a strong area that looks like for England by the way, Itoje, and the Bath duo of Charlie Ewels and Tom Ellis are a trio of highly promising second row forwards. Perhaps their greatest challenge over the coming years will be to be able to threaten that young and talented crop of second rows in the senior set up too.
Perhaps it was lucky that we were able to watch it with a sense of pride in those who graced the school playing fields last year, as the game itself was perhaps not the most gripping Anglo-French encounter.
England took an early lead through U20s stalwart & Northampton Saints centre Tom Stephenson. He took a deft offload from man of the match Ross Moriarty before diving over for a smart finish, Billy Burnsâ€™ conversion made it 7-0 matching the number of minutes gone on the scoreboard.
France clawed their way back though with three penalties either side of a Harry Thacker yellow card and the half time break, giving them an early second half lead of 9-7.
Burns pegged one back for England to put them back in the lead before a scuffle saw a man from each side take a trip to the bin, with Henry Purdy the man to walk for England. The mud and rain suited the French power game and they showed that while both sides were a man down, through a powerful try from their captain and number 8.
The conversion stretched the home sideâ€™s advantage to 16-10, however the whole tone of the game was about to change. The French replacement prop Anthony Rochet had a moment of sickening immaturity and brutality as he head butted England prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi at one broken down scrum.
The England man did well to control his reaction, and with just fifteen minutes left on the clock the referee took the only available option that he had and sent the Frenchman off.
Both sides did well to keep their cool for the remainder of the game but with the numbers uneven it seemed that the tide would surely turn Englandâ€™s way, and sure enough it did, with that Itoje try. Burnsâ€™ conversion just drifted wide to leave England still a point behind, however it seemed more likely than not that England would get another chance.
However it was France who were to take the chance, showing impressive fighting qualities to stay in the game despite the numerical disadvantage, particularly in difficult conditions, they scored the decisive final score with just two minutes remaining, to win the game 21-16.
It was a tough pill for England to swallow, but it was a performance with plenty to be proud of, as Head Coach Ian Peel said after the game:
â€œWeâ€™re disappointed with the result, we know that we can perform better than we did, but saying that there were parts of our game that functioned well. Our defence was excellent for large periods and I guess the exciting thing is that we know that thereâ€™s still a lot to come from this side. Fair play to France though â€“ they took their chances and have come away with the win.â€
He is right, there is still a lot to come from this side. With eleven guys fresh from school this is a very young U20s squad but that is what makes it an exciting one, and that is what should excite the schoolboys of 2013/14.
Work hard, train hard, and with a little bit of luck they might just find that they are not so very far away themselves.
In the meantime though, letâ€™s enjoy the end product of this U20s set up when Jack Nowell makes his international debut against France this evening. That, after all, is the dream.
Final Score: France U20 21-15 England U20
Did you see the game, what did you think? Who will be the next Nowellâ€™s and Watsonâ€™s from this squad? Get in touch via the comment box below or on @FifteenRugbyXV
England U20 XV v France U20:
15. Nathan Earle, Saracens (Oaklands College),Â 14. Zach Kibirige, Newcastle Falcons (Yarm),Â 13. Nick Tompkins, Saracens (Oaklands College),Â 12. Tom Stephenson, Northampton Saints (Bloxham & Moulton College),Â 11. Henry Purdy, Leicester Tigers (Burford & Cokethorpe),Â 10. Billy Burns, Gloucester (Beechen Cliff & Hartpury College),Â 9. Callum Braley, Bristol, captain (Colstonâ€™s & Hartpury College);Â 1. Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, Northampton Saints (Moulton College),Â 2. Harry Thacker, Leicester Tigers (Leicester Grammar School),Â 3. Paul Hill, Leeds Carnegie (Prince Henryâ€™s Grammar School),Â 4. Maro Itoje, Saracens (Harrow),Â 5. Charlie Ewels, Bath (Bryanston),Â 6. Ross Moriarty, Gloucester Rugby (Hartpury College),Â 7. Joel Conlon, Exeter Chiefs (Ivybridge), Â 8. James Chisholm, Harlequins (Brighton College).
Replacements: 16. Tom Woolstencroft, Bath (Bryanston), temporary scrum replacement for James Chisholm (23 mins â€“ 29 mins), Â 17. Alex Lundberg, London Wasps (Hampton), on for Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (62 mins), Â 18. Adam Jamieson, Bath (Corsham), Â 19. Tom Ellis, Bath (Millfield), on for James Chisholm (69 mins), Â 20. Will Owen, Leicester Tigers (Framlingham & Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College), on for Charlie Ewels (74 mins), Â 21. Henry Taylor, Loughborough University (Cranleigh), Â 22. Sam Olver, Northampton Saints (Oundle),Â 23 Howard Packman, Northampton Saints (Moulton College), on for Henry Purdy (62 mins).
By Angus Savage