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England U18 Head Coach Jonathan Pendlebury on squads, COVID, and finally getting started

2020 has been a pretty strange time for everyone, but it has been even more bizarre for England U18 Head Coach Jonathan Pendlebury.

Pendlebury only stepped into the role in January, having previously been Wasps’ Academy manager, he named a squad in February in anticipation of England U18 fixtures through late February and March ahead of the U18 Six Nations Festival in France. However before any of that could happen COVID-19 struck and world was turned upside down.

The games were cancelled and before long the RFU was forced into some fairly savage cuts as revenue streams dried up. Pendlebury was one of many staff to be furloughed, the job that was supposed to begin in January is still only really at the starting gate. It has been frustrating, no doubt, as Pendlebury said: “When you’re on furlough you can’t do anything…I’ve been doing a lot of reading and personal development” as for the players on that performance pathway “informal contact” was as much as was possible for the new U18 supremo.

Finally, though, 7 months after naming that February squad, England have been able to name two development camp squads, a north group that meet in York this weekend and a south group to meet in Bristol the following weekend.

He describes himself as “very happy and excited with the squads” and with a number of players included such as Jamie Benson, Ben Grubb, and Cassius Cleaves that were named in that February U18 squad a year young, why not. Clearly though the man in charge is excited about the group as a whole too and believes that there is a huge depth of potential in the English age-grade game.

“I’m excited about all of them. They’ve lost 6 months of rugby but they’ve had stacks of opportunities to develop other parts of their game. At this moment in time I’m constrained with how many players and staff I can take into a hotel at the moment and have on site at any one time.”

“(but) There’s 22 in each that are going to get an opportunity and some that have just missed out. I’ve said to all, this isn’t the squad that will come together in Feb and won’t be the one that plays in March.”

Adaptations will have to be made for the camps, of course, though even having a camp at all at this stage feels like a real bonus and was a point that the England U18 head coach was quick to praise the governing body on:

“We’re going to have on grass sessions, following the RFU guidelines. It gives us some great opportunities to work on some skills. RFU development department have worked with the medics and the government and have put something together that’s really good. It’s different to what I had planned, this U18 group would have had a camp, 26 would have had 3 games in South Africa, but we’re adapting as best we can.”

Adaptation is the name of the game across all walks of life at the moment, and in the world of England’s age-grade pathway it has been the name of the game for a good while now. Since the redundancies of John Fletcher, Pete Walton, and Russell Earnshaw in June 2018 the pathway programme has, it would be fair to say, not been a picture of stability – though it has undoubtedly continued to function well in its development of young talent. Throw COVID into the mix and the picture does not look any easier.

It’s a subject that Pendlebury, understandably, does not seem to want to be too drawn on. However with him in charge now, meaning a there is finally once more a permanent U18 Head Coach, and with Conor O’Shea, who was Director of the National Academy from 2005 to 2008, now back in a senior position at the RFU, perhaps that stability is set to return as rugby begins to normal as well.

“They wanted stability (in the past). Now Conor has a vision. Everybody is looking to adapt and overcome the COVID challenge. It’s how me move on and adapt.” “The pathway is about working with young rugby players and helping them to reach or push past their potential. English qualified players that Eddie, and whoever else in future, can turn to.”

“It’s about growing the game. We’re trying to be smart and sensible with the COVID virus. It’s important not just for the senior pro game, it’s important for these guys going on to Uni and the club game too.”

The University game is an interesting one for Pendlebury to name check, in many ways it appeared, certainly to outsiders, to have gone along a similar line to county championships. Huge in the amateur era but a dwindling force in terms of relevance to the top end of the game the more professional the game has become.

Perhaps now the University game is being recognised as a more valuable tool, the creation of the BUCS Super League has certainly added interest and competitiveness, and stories of the likes of Alex Dombrandt going via that route and then exploding on the professional scene certainly add weight. Pendlebury is certainly an advocate and believes it has been a valuable tool for longer than people maybe recognise.

“I don’t think it’s ever been ignored (the university game). I think people are talking about it more. They’re looking to support the lads. All the evidence shows that rugby is a later development sport. We’ve all seen a kid with a beard in year 7 and we’ve all seen a guy where the penny drops in his mid-20s. The adult male brain doesn’t develop until mid-20s. There’s a lot of good rugby playing universities that offer great academics as well. “

There is a passion for that wider world view for players that seeps through consistently from Pendlebury, even when discussing the role of NextGenXV in the school game. “You’re a custodian as well. You want to promote it and get players interested, you need an understanding of why kids play, some play to keep fit, some play because their best friend does it, some because they want to play for England. They are young adolescents with lots of influences and confusion. Ultimately, what do you go to school for? You go for academics and to prepare for life.”

So, after 9 months in the job, what does the England U18 Head Coach want? “I just want some more time with these boys….seriously, I just want to see these guys getting safe and sound around school and home life, club rugby, school rugby.”

“And I want a game, I didn’t get one last year!” A statement we can all get on board with in a year like no other. 

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