England got their U20 6 Nations campaign off to a stunning start with a comprehensive 59-17 win over France.
This is an England U20 side who arrived full of confidence as World Rugby U20 Champions, but there was plenty of reason for nerves too. England finished fifth in last year’s U20 6 Nations, while many of this group of players experienced defeat to France as U18 international last year.
What emerged at Exeter Chiefs’ Sandy Park though was a performance with not a hint of nerves or trepidation; it was a performance of stunning artistry from England.
Saracens fly half Max Malins was the man of the match, and the former Felsted School stand off was simply sensational scoring twice, including one absolute beauty, and setting up a number of others in a performance that showcased all of his considerable talents.
His support cast was outstanding though, particularly the back row of Tom Curry, Zach Mercer, and captain Ben Earl. Each brought differing skills to the performance but played with such intensity and balance that they quickly looked like a unit who had been played together for years.
Mercer with all that experience under his belt with Bath, and last year’s U20 side, was a ball-carrying workaholic, while Earl was all abrasion in the tackle and hard carrying, and superb work on the deck, his bloody nose as he crashed over for a try in the first half a fitting symbol of his style. Curry meanwhile, who looks set to switch in and out for Sale and England U20 with twin brother Ben, played the ‘dog’ role to great effect. Carrying less than usual, given the other two’s styles, his job was about tackling, jackling, clearing out, the Richard Hill role in effect. Unseen in many ways, except that when Curry hits, people stay hit, making his quiet business end up being stand out. It was terrific stuff.
The quality in depth was maybe best shown from the bench, where three players who captained England U18 last year were summoned, Gabriel Ibitoye, Josh Bayliss, and Jacob Umaga. Ibitoye and Umaga more than made an impact when they came on, both setting up gorgeous tries for their teammates Sam Aspland-Robinson and Tom Parton, both former Wellington College pupils.
However good England were though, France were equally bad. Their pack looked out of shape, their backline rudderless. With their senior XV struggling for the last few years, as a nation they can ill-afford for their age-group teams to be failing to produce players that might change that. For years now their backlines have failed to ignite, is it perhaps time to discard ‘Le Petit General’ and to start using their fly halves as their playmakers as the rest of the world does?
Take nothing away from this young group of England players, they were truly magnificent and now top the table after round one.
England U20 59-17 France U20
England U20 XV
15 Tom Parton (London Irish), 14 Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish), 13 Max Wright (Yorkshire Carnegie), 12 Will Butler (Worcester Warriors), 11 Sam Aspland-Robinson (Harlequins), 10 Max Malins (Saracens), 9 Harry Randall (Gloucester Rugby), 1 Ollie Dawe (Bristol), 2 Joe Mullis (Gloucester), 3 Joseph Morris (Worcester Warriors), 4 Jack Nay (Saracens), 5 Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), 6 Tom Curry (Sale Sharks), 7 Ben Earl (Saracens, captain), 8 Zach Mercer (Bath).
Replacements: 16 Jamie Blamire (Newcastle Falcons), 17 Jake Pope (Sale Sharks), 18 Ciaran Knight (Gloucester Rugby), 19 Justin Clegg (Worcester Warriors), 20 Josh Bayliss (Bath Rugby), 21 Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints), 22 Jacob Umaga (Wasps), 23 Gabriel Ibitoye (Harlequins).
Tries – Cokanasiga, Earl, Butler, Curry, Malins x2, Wright, Aspland-Robinson, Parton.
Conversions – Malins x7