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England name 27-strong squad for A team game versus Portugal

By Liam Heagney
The 2021 England A squad at training (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

England have named a 27-strong provisional squad to take Portugal on February 25 in Leicester – including five Test-capped players – in what will be their first A team match since 2016 when they competed as the Saxons on a tour of South Africa.

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Jamie Blamire and Tom Pearson, the two forwards omitted from the England senior squad this week, are named, as are Nick Isiewke, Harry Randall and Ollie Hassell-Collins in a group that will have George Skivington as its head coach.

A statement read: “The strong squad includes a blend of experience and youth, with five players already capped at senior level and some younger stars just at the start of their England careers.

“Those capped are Jamie Blamire, Nick Isiewke, Tom Pearson, Harry Randall and Ollie Hassell-Collins. Twenty-one of the 27 players have been brought through the England Rugby pathway and achieved caps at either U18 or U20 level within the men’s system.

“The squad was selected by England senior head coach Steve Borthwick in consultation with England A head coach George Skivington, defence coach Dom Waldouck, attack coach Sam Vesty and RFU director of rugby performance Conor O’Shea.

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“The squad will assemble at Loughborough University next Tuesday, February 20, to begin preparations for the fixture later that week. The group will also be joined by some of the players that aren’t selected by Steve Borthwick for England senior men’s fixture against Scotland in the Guinness Six Nations.”

Borthwick said: “We’re delighted to see the return of A team rugby as such an important part of our rugby’s development and to announce the squad for the forthcoming fixture against Portugal.

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“We have got a lot of talented and exciting young players in England, and this is a great opportunity for them to show they can play international rugby. We have selected players in this initial squad who we believe have the potential to be in the England team in the very near future.

“One of the very important aspects of this A team is to provide a platform for players who have come out of the U20s and who are playing club rugby, allowing them to experience the international environment.”

The English had originally been scheduled to revive their second-team programme some years ago with a June 2021 game versus Scotland A at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, but the side coached by John Mitchell had its plans terminated at the 11th hour when covid test alerts led to its cancellation.

Mitchell had named an XV containing 11 uncapped players, including Freddie Steward, Ben Curry and Joe Heyes who are currently part of Borthwick’s Six Nations squad ahead of the round three game away to Scotland on February 24.

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Ollie Lawrence, Ellis Genge and Charlie Ewels were also named to start in that aborted A game, while Beno Obano and George Furbank, two more current first-team squad members, were named on the bench.

Portugal, who beat Fiji and drew with Georgia at the recent Rugby World Cup, got their Rugby European Championship back on track last weekend with a 54-7 win over Poland following an opening round 6-10 loss to Belgium.

England A squad (vs Portugal)
Forwards (16):
Fin Baxter (Harlequins)
Jamie Blamire (Newcastle Falcons, 7 caps)
Tarek Haffar (Northampton Saints)
Sam Riley (Harlequins)
Seb Blake (Gloucester)
Josh Iosefa Scott (Exeter Chiefs)
James Harper (Sale Sharks)
Nick Isiekwe (Saracens, 11 caps)
Arthur Clark (Gloucester)
Ben Bamber (Sale Sharks)
Rusiate Tuima (Exeter Chiefs)
Tom Pearson (Northampton Saints, 1 cap)
Guy Pepper (Newcastle Falcons)
Alfie Barbeary (Bath)
Greg Fisilau (Exeter Chiefs)
Jack Clement (Gloucester)

Backs (11):
Caolan Englefield (Gloucester)
Harry Randall (Bristol Bears, 2 caps)
Charlie Atkinson (Gloucester)
Jamie Shillcock (Leicester Tigers)
Oliver Sleightholme (Northampton Saints)
Oliver Hartley (Saracens)
Rekeiti Ma’asi-White (Sale Sharks)
Cadan Murley (Harlequins)
Ollie Hassell-Collins (Leicester Tigers, 2 caps)
Josh Hodge (Exeter Chiefs)
Sam Harris (Bath)

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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