With Eddie Jones having named 21 uncapped players in his England training squad earlier in the week, the forthcoming U20 Six Nations looks like a greater shop window than ever for England’s future stars.
Nowhere in the England U20 Six Nations squad is there more of a depth of talent that in the half backs, where at scrum half Raffi Quirke and Jack van Poortvliet both must have been close to the senior squad, while Charlie Atkinson was in the Shadow Squad for the Senior Six Nations, with the likes of Fin Smith, Orlando Bailey, Dan Lancaster, and Tommy Matthews all part of an impressive depth chart at fly half alongside Atkinson.
Head Coach Alan Dickens acknowledges the concentration of talent, but cited one of the great U20 sides as an indication that versatility and simply playing games it what matters at this level:
“Not all of them can play 10 and I think what we have got there is we’ve got some good rugby players and they’re interchangeable within the backline. I was talking to Chris Boyd when I was at Northampton, he was involved in the New Zealand U20s in 2011, the team that beat England in the final, I think they had three fly halves in the backline Sopoaga, Barrett, Anscombe”
“We all know that they’re often the players that are key to decision making. We have (a lot of Premiership experience), with Raffi, Jack van Poortvliet, Fin Smith’s played a lot of rugby as has Charlie Atkinson with Wasps’ first team. Equally Tommy Matthews, although he’s not had first team exposure at Northampton Saints has played a lot of men’s rugby at 10. We have got some experience in the half backs, which is good. In Raffi and van Poortvliet we have two quality 9s, not just now but for years to come. To name just a couple.”
He has some talented young forwards at his disposal, among them former Wellington College star Lucas Brooke, the son of legendary former All Black, Zinzan:
“Lucas has been excellent, in the first game we played back in November he was physical and he certainly punches above his weight. You wouldn’t know that his Dad is Zinzan, he keeps himself to himself and is an excellent team member. We’ve done some bits in team meetings, he’s pretty good at singing, he likes to break out in song. He’s somebody that’s done really well, he wasn’t necessarily on the 18s radar, but it goes to show in terms of the development and progression of players, it happens at different rates.”
Brooke of course could well end up on the New Zealand radar himself someday, and in recent times we have seen plenty of movement from U20 representation to senior representation, Cameron Redpath playing England U20 before then playing for Scotland in the recent Six Nations, and earlier this week Ireland U20 international last year, Dan Kelly, being named in Eddie Jones’ senior squad. England U20 themselves had a look at a talented youngster from elsewhere earlier in the season, in Exeter Chiefs’ Christ Tshiunza, who is great hope for Welsh rugby in the coming years. As Dickens explains though, all was not quite as cynical as might have first appeared when Tshiunza was involved back in November:
“We weren’t strictly saying ‘you’ve got to be EQP’, I didn’t care if you were English, Scottish, Welsh, French, Fijian, wherever, because it was more about working together with the Premiership clubs, PRL, and the academies, and if we need some game time for players, let’s use it. So Christ was one of those, he played against London Irish and he played well. He played against us a couple of weeks ago for Wales, he came of the bench at 6. He’s at a Premiership Club at Exeter and it was no problem. James Harper at Sale Sharks, he played in one of the games, he’s this age group but born before Christmas, so we used it for clubs if they had people that needed game, Emmanuel Iyogun was another.”
That work with the clubs was a key point for Dickens as he reflected on this most bizarre of 18 months. While relations between the clubs and the senior men’s side can sometimes seem strained, it would appear that there is real harmony in the relationship between the U20s and the Premiership clubs.
“The contact we have had this year (with players) has been good, that certainly wouldn’t have happened without the support of PRL and the Clubs. A lot of clubs were worried about Covid and games being cancelled, but that trust from them in allowing players to train and play with players from other clubs has certainly been helpful. London Irish was one of the first games we played and the support that they gave in saying yes was important.”
Important not just in terms of the relationship, but also in terms of these young players having a chance to actually get on the field in a season in which all but the very top of the rugby pyramid has effectively been curtailed.
“The U19 group of these U20s, they didn’t play last year. They had their season curtailed back in March 2020 as we all know. Our first game this year at St George’s Park, one lad hadn’t played in 14 months, we played Wales 2 weeks ago, they had players that hadn’t played in 16 or 17 months, and it’s tough. It was tough, a lot of these players were U18s last year and they’re making that step into men’s rugby, playing London Irish. Equally the second game against Newcastle, they were physical, and the players that were less than a year out of school, they learnt from that. We lost that one and they adapted in the second, they knew the physicality was coming and we won that one. It certainly opened a few of their eyes as to how physical they need to be. I’ve been really pleased with the players this year and the commitment from them.”
Dickens is keen to credit his charges resilience through a tough year though, saying “The players are resilient. They’ve made the best of what’s on offer and what’s around them…it’s been challenging, but every opportunity this year they’ve grabbed it. They’ve travelled up and down the country and they’re actually pretty tight. They can stay in contact with their mates, they’re more adaptable and resilient that perhaps we think they are.“
Of course the U20s programme is fundamentally about helping develop players for the senior side for the future, not that that means they to not want to win, as Dickens pointed out; “Ultimately we’re all competitive…hopefully he hard work we’ve put in will get the rewards”. The ultimate reward, though, is making that step that recent U20s such as George Martin, Max Ojomoh, and Freddie Steward have – playing well and getting into the England squad. Eddie Jones knows it, and has been keen to impress and inspire the youngsters with that carrot, as Dickens explained:
“Eddie did a session at Bisham Abbey a couple of weeks ago, he John Mitchell, and Matt Proudfoot ran the session. So straight away the players see that alignment and progression. Eddie did a session last season and stood there and said ‘one of you boys will be at the next World Cup’ that’s so powerful, these boys are a year out of school and being told you could be going to the next World Cup. It’s really powerful.”
“The thing we really like to push is that the players leave the programme as better players and better people. That they come into an international environment, it’s different to the goldfish bowl of the senior Six Nations, but they get a taste of what it would be like when a lot of them progress. I think of the 21 uncapped players that Eddie Jones named yesterday, 17 of them came through the U20s programme. These competitions give the players a taste of what it will be like when they do make that step.”
“Hopefully a lot of the players will progress through the ranks and get senior caps…the experience over the next five or six weeks will hopefully stand them in good stead for the years to come when they’re playing in senior Six Nations and World Cups.”
As Eddie Jones has demonstrated time and time again, that step up is closer for some than they might ever even have dared to dream.