The 2017/18 England U20 Elite Player Squad was named on Wednesday afternoon and it brought with it plenty of unfamiliar faces.
The squad will be under the leadership of Steve Bates, with a coaching team of Anthony Allen (Leicester Tigers), Richard Blaze and James Ponton (Newcastle Falcons), and the side will be aiming to defend their U20 Six Nations title over the next two months, before attempting to make it to their sixth-straight final at the World Rugby U20 Championship in the summer.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) January 3, 2018
We take you inside the squad, position group by position group, and try to shine a light on some of the newer faces in the group and give you an insight into their chances of featuring this season.
Front-row – Beck Cutting (Worcester Warriors), Joe Heyes (Leicester Tigers), Joe Morris (Worcester Warriors), Gabriel Oghre (Wasps), Alex Seville (Gloucester), Marcus Street (Exeter Chiefs), Toby Trinder (Northampton Saints) and Henry Walker (Gloucester)
At hooker, Walker won the battle last season with Jamie Blamire and Curtis Langdon and returns from that group for another year, where he is joined by Cutting, a graduate from that campaign’s England U18 side, and Oghre, a player who was a surprising omission at U20 level last season. It’s a competitive hooker group and if Blaze can iron out the lineout inconsistencies that plagued the side last season, it should provide a solid foundation for the rest of the pack and the back line.
Amongst the props, Seville and Morris return from last season, as does Street, who was an U18 at the time and fast-tracked into the U20 set-up. Seville will be a good bet to start at loosehead, with Street alongside him on the tighthead, whilst new boys Heyes and Trinder should offer competition with Morris.
Second-row – Josh Basham (London Irish), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Dino Lamb (Harlequins) and James Scott (Worcester Warriors)
Nick Isiekwe is the obvious omission here, due to his involvements with the senior England side, but Josh Caulfield, Justin Clegg and Max Davies have all moved on, too, as has hybrid back-rower Jack Nay.
This is another group packed with hybrid players and Basham, Hill and Lamb have all played plenty of rugby in the back-row and will help keep up the recent trend of the England U20s trying to play fast, high-tempo rugby.
Lamb featured strongly for the U20s last season, whilst Hill had a small cameo as a 17-year-old during the U20 Six Nations, memorably dump tackling an Italian prop in his first action of the game, but this will be the first experiences at this level for Basham and Scott.
One of the keys will be getting the lineout running smoothly, something England struggled with last season when Isiekwe was required by Saracens or the England senior side.
Back-row – Ben Curry (Sale Sharks), Ben Earl (Saracens), Sam Lewis (Leicester Tigers), Sam Moore (Sale Sharks) and Tom Willis (Wasps)
The group looks a little threadbare on paper, especially if Sale and Saracens retain Curry and Earl, which is a definite possibility, but as mentioned earlier, the second-row is packed with hybrid players and hooker Oghre is very comfortable playing on the flank, too.
Tom Curry is unavailable due to his injury and senior England commitments, whilst the trio of Zach Mercer, Will Evans and Josh Bayliss are all now ineligible. The back-row was arguably the greatest strength of the side last season and this year’s crop have big boots to fill.
Lewis is the closest thing to an archetypal openside in the squad, with new additions Moore and Willis offering frightening power as ball-carriers. If England are looking to dominate the gain-line, opting for the pair at six and eight will ensure them plenty of front-foot ball.
Half-backs – Rory Brand (London Irish), James Grayson (Northampton Saints), Tom Hardwick (Leicester Tigers), Joe Snow (Exeter Chiefs) and Ben White (Leicester Tigers)
Scrum-halves Harry Randall and Alex Mitchell have graduated from the side, leaving Brand as the only nine with U20 experience in the squad, whilst none of the fly-halves in the initial squad from last season remain, though Grayson did feature for the side when Max Malins was required by Saracens.
Malins and Theo Brophy Clews are no longer eligible, Marcus Smith is busy with Harlequins and the England senior side and Jacob Umaga has not been included, creating plenty of questions about how this new-look group will dovetail.
White may have not played U20 rugby before, but he has his fair share of senior rugby experience, having featured intermittently for Leicester over the last couple of years. As for Snow, he has turned in some impressive performances for Exeter U18s, but will be probably seen as the developmental guy behind Brand and White.
This should be a good opportunity for Grayson and Hardwick who, perhaps unfairly, will always be compared to Smith, having come out of school rugby in the same year as the Quins youngster, but this is a showcase for them to make a name for themselves.
Centres – Will Butler (Worcester Warriors), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints), Gabriel Ibitoye (Harlequins), Jordan Olowofela (Leicester Tigers) and Matt Williams (London Irish)
Butler and Ibitoye are the constants here from last season, albeit with Ibitoye used on the wing by England in that campaign. He could still feature there and was a Junior World Player of the Year nominee, after all, but he is more than capable of playing outside centre and it could be the position he calls home in the long-term.
The graduations of Dom Morris and Max Wright, as well the non-selection of Umaga, create space for Dingwall, Olowofela and Williams.
Dingwall comes straight into the side from the England U18s, where he had a very productive couple of seasons, whilst Olowofela and Williams are both in their second year of eligibility, but bring plenty of speed to a back line that, if given front-foot and quick ball, will run plenty of teams off their feet.
Olowofela is the twin brother of Ryan Olowofela, who is currently in the England 7s set-up.
Back-three – Aaron Chapman (Bristol), Ali Crossdale (Saracens), Ben Loader, Tom Parton (both London Irish) and Tom Seabrook (Gloucester)
Parton would seem to be the leading man for the 15 jersey, if fit, having done a very accomplished job there last season, whilst Crossdale is the other carryover from 2016/17, having featured on the wing. He has a fly-half’s skill set and though he could well continue on the wing, he could also rotate with Parton at 15.
The theme of speed in this England side continues with Chapman, Loader and Seabrook, all of whom will fancy themselves in one-on-one situations with ball-in-hand, and arrive off the back of successful U18 seasons at club and country level.
If one of the trio can put their hand up to feature alongside Crossdale and Parton in the back three, it provides a good case for moving Ibitoye to outside centre and giving the rookie fly-halves a relatively experienced midfield outside of them.
Regardless of how the preferred XV might look, all three should get an opportunity this season and they will be worth watching. Loader is the prototypical wing for the modern game and is already earning playing time with Irish, whilst Seabrook ran in tries for fun in the U18 league last season.
It’s worth noting that Seabrook is a hybrid guy who can play in the 13 spot, too, if required and is another example of the players with multi-positional skill sets that the U20s prize so highly and that the U18s – club and country – have done such a successful job of producing in recent years.
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