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England explain why Zach Mercer didn't make their A team squad

By Liam Heagney
Gloucester's Zach Mercer (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Conor O’Shea has shed light on the thinking behind the England A squad selection announced on Thursday, a 27-strong group that included five Test cap players but won’t involve Gloucester No8 Zach Mercer even though the representative team’s head coach is his Kingsholm boss George Skivington.


Having failed to get into Steve Borthwick’s senior squad for the recent Rugby World Cup and the current Guinness Six Nations despite his move back to England from France for the 2023/24 Gallagher Premiership season, the February 25 A team game versus Portugal was seen as a potential opportunity for Mercer to get back into the international fold.

However, rather than get included in the squad for the Mattioli Woods Welford Road match, Borthwick and the A team coaches instead unveiled a group with five other previously capped players – Jamie Blamire and Tom Pearson, the two forwards omitted from the England senior squad this week, along with Nick Isiewke, Harry Randall and Ollie Hassell-Collins.

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Asked why Mercer didn’t make a squad that he might have expected to be involved in, RFU director of rugby performance O’Shea said: “There would be players that Steve might pick tomorrow that would be ahead of some of the players that are potentially there now, and it’s getting that balance.

“We said this right from the start about young players popping out of the U20s that we want to keep that connection amongst them as well as the senior players and it’s getting that balance. Listen, it’s a massive honour to play for your country at any level and this is a big Test match against Portugal, but we are trying to balance.


“You could look across and say there are a number of players, ‘Should they be in?’ Every position has been discussed with what’s right for this particular game as opposed to what would be happening if you were running out into the Six Nations, plus making sure we have the strongest type of team available.

“That’s the rationale behind some of the selections. And Steve has spoken to a couple of players who might think, ‘Are we second in, are we third in the team and we’re not in this’ and he has spoken to them.”


The upcoming fixture versus Portugal, who defeated Fiji and drew with Georgia at the recent Rugby World Cup in France, will be the first England fixture at A team level since they toured South Africa as the Saxons in 2016.

A fixture planned versus Scotland A in June 2021 was cancelled on the morning of the match due to some positive covid tests, meaning that next week will be the first time an A game will happen in eight years.

It won’t be a one-off either, according to O’Shea, as the long-term plan is to have three to four A team matches every year as the RFU felt that not having these types of games in between U20s and Test level was a missing link in their player development pathway.

“Three to four (games), and four may be a stretch because we are very conscious of overloading, but also you want a programme where you have an element of consistency for some of these young players in it but it will be done in the international windows,” added O’Shea.


“We have been pushing for this… We can’t have 20 fixtures, that’s not possible, but our ability to now to keep that connection, to have a look at people, to give a different experience, it’s going to be brilliant having it back and it’s going to be the first of a number of games that we will put in at specific times in the year.

“It will hopefully give that opportunity for players who will have to be ready for Steve tomorrow and for some players who we are looking at and want to keep that connection, we want to see them in these environments and see can they make a step up. Really excited to have it back.


“We are pretty close to being able to confirm a few (more fixtures) and what we’ll do is look at the fallow week in next year’s Six Nations, probably have one if we can in the autumn and maybe one at the end of the season before the tour is on – there is quite a space in between U20s Junior World Cup and the senior team touring.

“There may be an opportunity in there so we are talking to countries, but we are also very conscious we don’t want to overplay players so it is getting the right number. It’s a massively important stepping stone for people to be able to prove themselves in that new environment you want to see people in.

“I was always really conscious of coaches used to be able to say to me, ‘You may be good at club rugby, it doesn’t mean you are good at international rugby’ and vice-versa. We are really excited to see these players next week.”

England have named 27 players in the A squad but that figure will increase by an unspecified number next Tuesday evening after Borthwick has settled on the match day 23 he will be picking from his senior squad of 36 to take on Scotland in round three of the Six Nations at BT Murrayfield.

“We want to improve depth in every position. I wouldn’t go into individual positions, that’s wrong, but every player chosen has been chosen for a different reason, some are at different levels. There may be some players that would be included that Steve would call in straight away; there would be some players that will definitely drop down on Tuesday evening from the senior team.

“We know who they will be at the moment but we want to get through the weekend and see what Steve says. There will be a number of players that will drop down to this team to give it the experience.

“It has to be a really good experience and not just chucking a load of young players in without the senior heads around them to lead the way. That will happen next week.

“It’s just trying to get into the position of seeing some of these players step up and put their hands up to put pressure on the players above them. I would go into individuals quite happily, but it would be wrong to put pressure on them.”


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Poorfour 3 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

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