The first RBS 6 Nations post Rugby World Cup is always a bit of an exciting one, retirements, coaching changes, and the chance to bring in players with an eye to the next World Cup always ensure that.
Of course the part that really excites us at Fifteen Rugby is the potential for youngsters to gain their international chance. Having won two of the last three U20 World Championships, and appeared in the final of the third, England have a particularly exciting group of youngsters and incoming Head Coach has picked them in his Elite Player Squad.
We though we would take a quick look at those youngsters, as well as a few from other squads, in this week’s Weekend Review.
England’s ‘New’ Boys
Jack Clifford (Back Row)
Clifford is being touted as England’s most likely long-term openside option at the moment, though he will likely be on the bench against Scotland, with James Haskell in the 7 shirt.
The Harlequins back row has had a real breakthough year this season after a smattering of appearances for his club in the last couple of years. He was captain and number 8 during England’s 2013 Junior World Championship Triumph, their first ever U20 World Title, and also a member of the 2012 team.
Clifford has also played for England 7s, and having leapfrogged another England hopeful, Luke Wallace, at Quins, the youngster is earmarked for stardom.
Luke Cowan-Dickie (Hooker)
Luke Cowan-Dickie is arguably one of England’s greatest ever players at U20 level. He played the 2012 JWC as a looshead prop before converting to hooker ahead of the successful 2013 tournament, in which he was one of the stars of the tournament.
Cowan-Dickie has close to World Cup selection in 2015 but just missed out to Jamie George, but did win his first England cap in one of the warm-up fixtures. He looks unlikely to feature against Scotland, but do not bet against the young Exeter Chief appearing later in the tournament. His abrasive style and outstanding running game make him a valuable option.
Ollie Devoto (Inside Centre/Fly Half/Utility Back)
The danger for the former Bryanston School man now, as it was then, is of becoming an expert utility man without ever nailing down a position. At the moment though it looks like Eddie Jones has picked him as a 12, and that’s good new for the man who was on the bench in that 2013 JWC final.
Devoto is a perfect blend of being a big man with a fly half’s kicking and distribution skills, or in other words, what England have been crying out for at 12.
He is moving from Bath to Exeter Chiefs in the summer for more game time, but that has not stopped Eddie Jones from keeping him in the England 23 for the Scotland game. Could become a key player.
Paul Hill (Tighthead)
Paul Hill is England’s most capped player ever at U20 level, for two years he was the absolute go to man. He managed to stay a little off the radar as he was at Yorkshire Carnegie, however his summer move from there to Northampton Saints has seen his recognition shoot up, and his performances with it, so much so that he will almost certainly make his debut off the bench next weekend.
Not only is the young prop a superb scrummager, he also gets around the park brilliantly too, as anyone who saw his disallowed try against Leicester Tigers could testify to.
He was part of the U20 World Championship winning side in 2014 and started the 2015 final too, both times alongside hooker Jack Walker, another Yorkshire Carnegie prospect who is sure to be in England colours soon.
Sam Hill (Inside Centre)
Perhaps among the least heralded of all of Exeter’s young stars, but Hill shouldn’t be, this is his third season with the 1st XV and he fully deserves his England call up.
The centre started in England’s 2013 JWC triumph and was also in the 2012 squad. That he started ahead of Ollie Devoto tells you all you need to know – not to mention how exciting their duel for club and country is going to be over the coming years!
Hard running, brave, and with no little skill to match, Hill has all the makings of a top class international centre.
Maro Itoje (Second Row/Blindside)
Maro Itoje is perhaps the most talked about young player in English rugby, perhaps in European rugby. It ought to be no surprise, the level of his performances for Saracens have been simply outstanding.
He captained England U20 to their 2014 World Championship, captained Saracens Storm to A league victory in 2015, and captained Saracens to LV=Cup victory in 2015 too before he was called into the wider England training squad for the World Cup.
He missed out on a cap and on World Cup selection, and looks set to miss out against Scotland too, but Itoje’s time is coming, and he’s going to have quite an impact.
England’s ‘Old’ Boys
George Ford (Fly Half)
It might seem ridiculous to include George Ford on this list, but hear us out. Ford was actually eligible for England’s 2013 U20 World Championship victory but was given the time off by selectors.
This was not a snub, it was because he was so good at that point (Ford was U20 World Player of the Year at just 18) that there was no real benefit to him competing, he was better to stick with Leicester Tigers and continue his development in senior rugby.
Now of course he is at Bath and is the attacking, gainline breaking, fly half that England have been searching for so many years for. It looks likely that he will get the nod at fly half against Scotland after being dropped mid-World Cup for Owen Farrell, who seems likely to start at inside centre.
Henry Slade (Fly Half/Centre)
Slade was a key figure in England’s 2013 U20 triumph, directing proceeding’s from fly half expertly after learning behind Ford during the 2012 tournament.
Last year he had his breakthrough season at Exeter, though as an outside centre. It led to him being selected for the World Cup squad during which there was huge clamour for him to be selected.
Under Eddie Jones it looks like he will be considered as an inside centre, however we will have to wait until the summer to find out as he recovers from a broken leg over the RBS 6 Nations.
Jack Nowell (Wing/Full Back)
The Exeter Chief started at full back for England U20 during their 2013 JWC campaign, but has won all ten of his senior England caps on the wing.
A key player for Exeter, Nowell now has the opportunity to really cement himself into the England back three to with Jonny May unfortunately set to miss the RBS 6 Nations through injury.
With a run of games in the side, Nowell could go on to become a key player for England as this group of former U20 internationals start to grow into the heartbeat of the current England side.
Anthony Watson (Wing/Full Back)
In a very short space of time Anthony Watson has gone from a decent U20 international to arguably one of the very best young players in the world, and certainly one of the few players in England’s current side who most would regard as ‘World Class’.
As a youngster on London Irish’s books, Watson started the 2013 U20 World Championship final on the wing. He was all set to be part of the 2014 U20 set up too before he was called up to the England senior squad following some startling performances for Bath after moving there that summer.
At that point we should all have known that there was a special player there, and he really showed it during the World Cup warm up games and through the World Cup, where he was one of the few England players to really impress. Equally at home either on the wing or at full back, Watson is surely a permanent fixture in the England backline for the next seven or eight years.
Scottish & Welsh U20 successes
Zander Fagerson (Scotland, Tighthead)
Fagerson was one of Scotland’s top performers in last year’s U20 World Championships. He was eligible again for the U20 squad this year, but his commitments with the Glasgow Warriors 1st XV meant he could not be selected for the first squad.
They were pretty serious commitments too; in last few months he appears to have cemented himself in as the first choice tighthead for Glasgow. How many other twenty-year-old props are able to be first choice at such a top club?
That form and ability saw him called into Vern Cotter’s senior Scotland squad for the RBS 6 Nations last week, and it would be no surprise to see the young man come off the bench against England.
Ross Moriarty (Wales, Flanker)
The Gloucester blindside was actually a part of the England U20 back row that won the 2013 Junior World Championship, alongside Jack Clifford. They actually played against Wales in that final, however when full international coaches came knocking, it always seemed likely that Moriarty would plump for Wales, despite his age-grade representation, his father was a Welsh international before him and he always considered himself a Welshman.
His form for Gloucester last year saw him called into the Welsh training squad ahead of the World Cup, and though he was not selected for the initial World Cup squad, he left an impression on Warren Gatland.
As soon as injury struck, Moriarty was called into the squad and made a number of appearances in the tournament. As the RBS 6 Nations approach, he is putting the incumbent blindside, Dan Lydiate, under serious pressure. England’s loss has very much been Wales’ gain.
And one to show it’s not all about ‘performance pathways’
Josh Beaumont (England, Number 8)
Beaumont is the man representing everyone who missed out on U18 or U20 selection. The man who proves that it is not how good you are when you are 17, 18, or 19 that counts, but how good you are when the senior caps are being handed out.
Beaumont’s route is an unusual one, while at Durham University he trudged the National leagues bath with Fylde in National 1, while also representing Durham. Impressive and free running performances for Fylde saw him picked up by Sale Sharks once he finished University, and from there the son of the former England captain, Bill, has soared to ever higher levels.
Playing with a freedom rarely seen from many youngsters who have trudged the academy pathway, the number 8 forced his way into an England appearance against the Barbarians last year, and his stunning performances this year have seen Eddie Jones call him up to the full England squad.
Beaumont is the man who shows that there is more than one route to the top.