Building the future England internationals
November 27, 2013
The victorious 2013 crop © Getty Images
Sustained success in sport isn't easy. Whoever coined the phrase 'second season syndrome' wasn't indulging in inane alliteration just for the sake of of it.
Fortunately for the England Under-20s, head coach Nick Walshe seems neither fazed by expectation nor overwhelmed at past glories. Strikingly laid back, the former Bath and Harlequins scrum half - who won two caps in 2006 - is unassumingly pragmatic about the prospect of repeating June's Junior World Championship victory.
"If you ask the lads, they'll tell you all I ever go on about it performance," he said. "But it's funny; you do want success again once you have had a taste of it.
"Including the Six Nations, we have 10 matches this year - I want 10 good performances. If that means we win the World Cup again, great. If it means we come sixth or seventh, fine. For us to lose though, someone else is going to have play bloody well.
"One of the first things I did when we met up in September was tell the boys that while England Under-20 are world champions, this team isn't. Yes, we will be called world champions up until the final in New Zealand next summer, but we haven't earned it. We've won nothing. We start again."
Anthony Watson - from England Under-20s to the senior squad © Getty Images
Helping the new crop of talented teenagers settle at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford 13 weeks ago were Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. On the second morning of the camp, the England boss gave a stirring presentation on national identity. That afternoon, his two Lions lieutenants led full-blooded contact sessions.
Such proximity to Test rugby gurus must be enormously heartening. Just this month, a call-up to the full squad for terrific Bath tyro Anthony Watson - remarkably still eligible for Under 20 action - provided another tangible example of alignment between senior and age-group set-ups. Although it was only a "taster", Lancaster says the 19-year-old can "definitely" hot-step his way into the 2015 frame. Certainly, the last exceptional graduate afforded such an education - Joe Launchbury, just before last summer's tour to South Africa - came through mighty quick.
In fact, Launchbury and Owen Farrell appeared in the 2011 JWC decider against New Zealand. Brodie Retallick and Charles Piutau lined up opposite them to foreshadow the recent international at Twickenham. That day's England squad for the final also featured Mako Vunipola, Christian Wade and Marland Yarde - all of whom would have been involved against the All Blacks two years on had they been fit. However, the most encouraging thing is that each of the matchday 22 to a man - led by George Ford, Elliot Daly, Matt Kvesic and Sam Jones - have made significant strides at first-team level.
Even within the Under-20 bracket, there is huge scope for individual development. It is a launch pad and a shop window - as Jack Nowell found on his selection in the Saxons squad - but also an autonomous environment that teaches tough lessons about tournament rugby. Naturally, the most promising players spend longer more than a season there, and Walshe says the maturing process is discernible.
"Take Henry Purdy," Walshe suggests. "I poured him into the squad last January and he ended up winning the Six Nations and the World Cup. This year, he's a different animal. Physically, he's in great shape. Mentally, he's come on, too - you can just see what a difference the year makes.
"We've got challenges ahead of us because the people in their second year last season were Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dom Barrow, Jack Clifford, Sam Hill and others - the core of the team. Those have gone this year and their places are taken up with new players."
Leicester Tiger Purdy, a midfield replacement in the gutsy 23-15 JWC final win over Wales, is also confident enough to give a few sparkling soundbites.
"Once you've experienced winning, what better motivation is there than to go out and do it again?" he says with his runaway enthusiasm contrasting with Walshe's calm. "It's up to us to put in the same effort as the boys did last season. Anything else just won't feel as good."
Joining Bristol scrum half Callum Braley, prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and six others including Watson, Purdy is part of a spine of second-years that have a responsibility to set standards. Among the fresh faces are brawny Harlequins back-rower James Chisholm, who captained England Under 18 in South Africa this summer, and Billy Burns - a fly half every bit as affable and gifted as brother Freddie, a high-flier from the class of 2009-10.
A sturdy representative pathway in this country is built around impressive coaches. John Fletcher has instilled England Under-18 with an attractive, expansive approach for five years, while Walshe's predecessor Rob Hunter joined Exeter in March - it is no coincidence that Chiefs' pack exploded out of the blocks in the Aviva Premiership with an extra dimension. In charge before Hunter was Mark Mapletoft, whose innovative rugby brain and consistent convention-challenging enticed Conor O'Shea to incorporate him at Harlequins.
The 2011 crop of England Under-20s © Getty Images
In former Newcastle Falcons loose-head Ian Peel, the Under-20s have a hugely insightful scrum Svengali, who was partly responsible for guiding Cowan-Dickie's journey from the back row to hooker via a stint in the number one shirt - what a service to English rugby that might prove to be one day.
One aspect of his job worries Walshe, though. What of the alumni that don't catch Lancaster's eye and tread water at their clubs?
"I do speak to [the players that leave the Under 20s]," Walshe adds, "but this is the one big void - the gap between us and the seniors.
"We are working really to fill it. You do try and keep in touch with the players but they get engulfed in their club stuff and once they leave us, it's difficult. We want to have more impact on them but it's hard because we can't tell the clubs how much to play them."
To its credit, the RFU is imparting more support strategies for outgoing Under-20s. The BMW Academy, which "takes a holistic approach to each player", is one such development programme. This has funded driving lessons for Launchbury and further specialist coaching - throwing expert Simon Hardy's sessions with Cowan-Dickie and bio-mechanical kicking analysis for fellow Exeter man Henry Slade. However, sponsorship is only available to a select with "considered potential" to reach the Test arena.
Recently appointed head of international player development Joe Lydon will doubtlessly prove a major help in bridging the gap, and Simon Amor has hinted he would be willing to experiment with his Sevens selections. Alex Gray, who captained Farrell, Kvesic and co. in the aforementioned JWC three seasons ago, has a central contract for the shorter format and will be looking to emulate the pathway Tom Croft and Ben Youngs embarked on under Ben Ryan.
In short, the England Under-20 programme is delivering on a lot of levels. The "void" Walshe highlights is not a glaring problem - more players move on to consistent Premiership action than stall. As for the current crop, the future is in their hands for now. Performance is Walshe's currency. The rest can take care of itself.
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