On Saturday England U20 will take part in a fixture against an opposition that is as yet publicly unknown.
England U18 have also been in training, with a camp last weekend and another this, however like the U20s the RFU are shrouding the squads and their activities in secrecy.
One can only speculate as to why this is the case. In a year in which so little rugby has been played, if at all, for anyone at age-grade level, these squads would seem a perfect opportunity to spark some much needed joy and celebration into the age-grade game, giving these young players a chance to have their achievement celebrated properly. One has to assume that others disagree.
Over the past twelve months we have heard from so many different angles that rugby needs to find ways of promoting itself, of finding ways to be relevant and engaging in a time where money is scare and the game itself is scrapping for survival.
Shrouding these youth squads in secrecy does not seem in keeping with that necessity, U18 and U20 national squads are a chance for us all to glimpse the future and to get excited about what it holds. If you want people to get excited about your product, give them access, give them reason to be excited.
Yes, for the players and staff these squads are about development and building a foundation of knowledge, rightly so, and we as a rugby collective do not want to heap undue pressure on these young men. Does that mean shielding their achievement from view, avoiding celebration of it? Maybe to some it does. If so, though, might it not make sense for the governing body to explain why such things are kept under wraps nowadays?
Nevertheless some facts have made their way through to us, among them is Saturday’s England U20 squad. Our understanding is that they will be playing against a London Irish side (supported by the lack of any London Irish players in the 26 man line up), though Will Joseph not appear for either side as he is on the bench for the London Irish first team this evening.
The team is:
15 Orlando Bailey (Bath), 14 Tom Roebuck (Sale Sharks), 13 Oscar Beard (Harlequins), 12 Dan Lancaster (Leeds Tykes), 11 Matty Ward (Newcastle Falcons), 10 Fin Smith (Worcester Warriors), 9 Tom Carr-Smith (Bath), 1 Phil Brantingham (Newcastle Falcons) 2 Sam Riley (Harlequins), 3 Tristan Smith (Saracens), 4 Arthur Clark (Gloucester), 5 Alex Groves (Bristol Bears), 6 Freddie Thomas (Gloucester) 7 Emeka Ilione (Leicester Tigers), 8 Nahum Merigan (Bath).
Replacements: 16 Archie Vanes (Leicester Tigers), 17 Lewis Holsey (Worcester Warriors), 18 Fin Baxter (Harlequins), 19 Christ Tshiunza (Exeter Chiefs), 20 Josh Gray (Gloucester), 21 Toby Knight (Saracens), 22 Tom Cairns (Exeter Chiefs), 23 Seb Atkinson (Worcester Warriors), 24 Arthur Relton (Exeter Chiefs), 22 Benjy Joseland (Bristol Bears), 26 Gabriel Goss (Bath).
The 26-man squad for Saturday differs slightly to the 32-man EPS, that actually was announced, back in January. One of the most notable inclusions being Exeter Chiefs lock and former Whitchurch High School star, Christ Tshiunza. Tshiunza has long promised to be a huge Welsh star of the future but, in the short term at least, it looks as though England are giving him plenty of opportunity, too.
Also coming in from outside of the EPS and into the starting lineup at Saracens’ Felsted old boy Tristan Smith at tighthead, Newcastle Falcons’ former Gosforth Academy winger Matty Ward, and Bath scrum half Tom Carr-Smith, whose star has been rapidly on the rise since he put in some stunning performances in a Sherborne shirt as skipper in 2019/20.
Also new to the squad on the bench are Leicester Tigers’ Archie Vanes, a top class hooker once of Brooksby Melton College, Wellington College leaver Fin Baxter, who originally missed out because of his rapid elevation at Harlequins, Gloucester’s Dean Close leaver Josh Gray, Saracens’ Toby Knight, who was at Berkhamsted last year, Exeter Chiefs’ Tom Cairns and Arthur Relton, Bristol Bears’ Benjy Joseland, and Bath’s Gabriel Goss.
A number of the original EPS are actually unavailable due to their outstanding performances at senior level of late, among them Leicester Tigers’ Jack van Poortvliet, Sale Sharks’ Raffi Quirke and Joe Carpenter (who starts on loan in an exciting Nottingham side containing fellow youngsters Joe Bedlow, Joe Browning, and Tom Curtis), Northampton Saints Tommy Freeman, and Tommy Matthews who starts on loan at Bedford this weekend, Wasps Charlie Atkinson, whose star has shone so brightly that he is in the England shadow squad, Bath’s Ethan Staddon and Ewan Richards, Gloucester’s Jack Clement, and of course Leicester Tigers’ George Martin, whose phenomenal rise saw him on the bench for England last weekend.
The starting fifteen should really thrill, there are three in the side capable of playing at fly half, with Fin Smith at ten, former Scotland U18 star Dan Lancaster (the son of former England coach, Stuart) at 12, and Orlando Bailey at 15, demonstrating the depth of talent in that area that is available, with Atkinson and Matthews both eligible too but playing senior rugby over the weekend. Look out too for an all-action back row of Thomas, Ilione, and Merigan, three outstanding young players.
All 26 deserve huge recognition, though. It is an outstandingly talented group, and the depth is only highlighted by the number of players in action at senior level at the moment. English rugby at age-grade level looks in rude health – let’s celebrate it!