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Jonathan Pendlebury: 'I don’t want to fluff it up too much'

By Liam Heagney
England U18s boss Jonathan Pendlebury (RFU Collection via JMP)

It’s been a long way from there to here for Jonathan Pendlebury, from a comp school in Rotherham to coaching the England U18s and nurturing the Twickenham stars of tomorrow. He’s proud of what he has done in the past and excited about what he might be able to do in the future.

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Right now, the rate of knots has slowed given the time of year it is academically for the kids. There are exams to be done, club academy contracts to be sorted, the sort of activity that doesn’t come under Pendlebury’s remit.

Last month it was all go when the 41-year-old guided England to three successive wins Six Nations festival wins in Parma, and the speed will pick up heading into August when he tours South Africa with the U17s whose status will jump to U18s the following month, signalling the annual developmental cycle starting fresh all over again.

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The Academy – Part Five

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Some recent caps are already making headlines. Amongst the squad that got the better of Wales, Scotland and Georgia in Italy was Tyler Offiah, son of rugby league legend Martin. His next step is Bath, but Pendlebury isn’t hanging by the phone awaiting every contractual twist and turn.

“If I’m honest I don’t take any interest in it, which might sound boring,” he told RugbyPass. “It’s not really for me to get involved in. I know that Tyler has gone across to Bath because he is thinking of studying there.

“There have been a couple of other announcements from other clubs, but I just wait and see where they are registered at the beginning of the season heading into their U19s and are eligible to come back onto our radar.”

Ask when unfolded on the Six Nations pitches six weeks ago, though, and his response is very different. The intel flows. “Very, very pleased to win. Three very, very different fixtures.

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“A really tough, exciting Welsh team, a challenging, physical Scotland team that wanted to play fast, and as soon as the game finished against Georgia, I went up to their coaches – and I said to Mark Mapletoft as well, who is leading our 20s – we need to play Georgia more often.

“They are a different challenge to what we get playing France, playing Ireland, playing Italy, and definitely the other three home nations teams. It was good to have Portugal (at the festival).

“We didn’t play them but brilliant having Georgia. You could see they were well-coached, a tough side to break down. The mix up of forwards and backs connecting, the set-piece, and just some tough physical carriers.”

Aside from the victories, Pendlebury hopes these graduated U18s left the grade more aware of what pro rugby is about. “They came in to explore and hopefully they have left better, picked up some skills, whether it is technical, tactical work, even some off-pitch things. Every morning on camp, they did a check-in with the medics and the S&Cs.

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“We call it prepare to train, some self-check physical checks, mental prep checks. Are you getting ready to train? For example, you might have had a game the day before, are you still sore or are you injured from the game? Then we go to breakfast and then into reviews.

“That is going to be their life and career for the next eight, 10, 12-plus years if they want to be in that top-end game and how you prepare for a game off the back of recovering from a game is important.

The England U18s staff
The England U18s staff celebrate their team’s unbeaten run at last month’s festival in Italy (Photo by Federico Zovadelli/Actionpress)

“Hopefully, some experiences they gain with us on preparing individually and preparing collectively gives them skills and experiences of what it looks like and stands them in good stead to be professionals.

“And then also what touring is like at U18s… hopefully, they have learned better and have skills in their kit bag to take into their next environment where it gets even harder because they are then competing against U40s and competing against the world.”

Pendlebury’s 2023/24 batch has moved on, but the scouting continues. Warwick festival, for instance, was on at the same time as he was in Italy so there was plenty of footage to be reviewed as well as an introductory gathering at Hartpury for the U17s who will tour South Africa.

As ever, some potential positional switches are under consideration. “That happens regularly,” he explained. “The academies are fully involved with us on that, the player is always at the centre of that and involved in the discussions. We had two openside flankers, for example, who came to the U17 camp and had a throwing session with Andy Titterell. They were throwing in the lineouts.

“I had discussions with their academies. They trained as flankers all weekend and played as flankers in the game, but they were throwing with Andy in the lineouts session and got feedback.

“We have players who are middle two/outside back who can play 13, 14, 15. We have 10s who are 10/12 or they might be a 12/10. Flankers playing across the back row. We have some ones definitely moving. It might be an exploring through the 16s, 17s, and in the U18s that is going to be the year where they hope to get some positional confirmation.”

No matter how forensic the work done by Pendlebury and co, there are no guarantees that talented teenagers will thrive in adult rugby. “If we had a crystal ball it would be a lot easier, but we haven’t. You are just trying to make a best guess, aren’t you?

“You are trying to make the best guestimate based upon the physical characteristics that they have got, their ability now but also the perceived ability they could be in the future. And then just based upon the experiences you have had with similar players whether it has worked or not.”

Come September, there will be 11 academies – 10 Premiership clubs and Yorkshire – compared to last season’s 14 as the emergency setups created to offset the demise of Worcester, Wasps, and London Irish will be closed and absorbed by the remaining academies extending their recruitment boundaries.

“There is not less players because these players are still playing and have loads of opportunities,” insisted Pendlebury. “If you are playing club, school, college, those playing opportunities are there.”

The RFU are often accused of running a sport for posh kids, but Pendlebury doesn’t agree. He didn’t have a private school pathway in Rotherham, instead playing age-grade for his country and then making it professionally with Gloucester and Leeds after breaking through at the local Titans. In other words, where there is a will there is a way.

“You don’t want it to be too fluffy, but I always want the players to dream big. Dream big and it’s the club coaches that are volunteering who fuel that ambition and give them opportunities if they are playing.

“There are guys who don’t play England U18s and maybe come into the U20s late. There are a few who don’t even play England 18s/20s but with university rugby how it is now, we like to think that we have got good relationships and don’t miss many players, or the academies don’t miss many players. There is good awareness of what is going on.

“I started playing rugby quite late. I was 15. There was a lot of football and athletics done at my school and I was just fortunate the volunteers were offering me opportunities down at my junior club, Wath upon Dearne.

“Made some good mates there, played county rugby, went into South Yorkshire and Yorkshire and then the North of England. It was just very different back then. It was the old county system, and the game has moved on.

“There is a lot of opportunities for the counties and then there is a lot of opportunities for the regional academies, and they are just very different to support the different ambitions of the youngsters coming through.”

What’s his message for kids from the other side of the tracks, who don’t have a private school route into the game? “My stock answer is to take ownership of your career. Take ownership of your destiny. Now I don’t want to fluff it up too much by saying if you work hard enough at something you will get the rewards.

“In the real world that doesn’t always happen and, as I say, when you get into the U35s, U40s league, even when you are competing domestically in England and are a Premiership player, you are still competing against the rest of world because the Premiership can bring in overseas players.

“My answer would be, take ownership of your career; take ownership of your academy career, of your employment career. Find out what good looks like to get into an academy. Find what good looks like to achieve grades in your exams. That is the competitive world as well, to get into university, to get on the apprenticeship programmes.”

Pendlebury’s ‘coaching’ ownership began as a player. “There was a period when I was injured for a significant time, but I could get out and do some volunteer coaching. I thought, ‘Right, if I want to do it well or find out if I’m good enough, let’s get some qualifications’. I did my coaching badges, took myself back to uni knowing I would need more paydays after playing rugby than in it.”

There have been sliding doors. He exited the Wasps academy for the RFU four months before the pandemic hit and his old club has since gone to the wall. “Some clubs fell on hard times, and it was really tough to see a lot of my good friends at Wasps end up having to step away.”

Professional rugby in Pendlebury’s native Yorkshire remains a minefield, the Premiership a no-go zone and Doncaster Knights solo flying the flag in the Championship. “When I went back to Leeds from Gloucester, you had Leeds, Rotherham, Doncaster, Otley all in the Championship.

“Just underneath that you had Wharfedale, the two Hull clubs, you had Harrogate. Like, rugby has always been strong in Yorkshire. There are over 100 senior clubs and nearly a hundred with junior sections as well, but it’s tough.

“There’s not been Premiership elite rugby in the county since we were relegated in that 2010/11 season… There are several contributing factors. Finances. Playing numbers. Competition from sport. Just general interest of those areas as well.”

It was last Tuesday when Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, mentioned working with a teenage Mako Vunipola while coaching the England U18s. Does Pendlebury have designs on that type of coaching career trajectory?

“My skill set is on the development side. I’ve put an awful lot of time and effort into that. I see myself being a specialist development coach rather than a specialist first-team coach or a specialist senior Premiership forwards coach, scrum coach, lineout coach.

“I do see it as a specialism. Everything from developing your coaching curriculum and what the needs of the players are at 16 to 18. My skill set suits and my passion suits working with these players.

“I probably excel in a lot of areas in that development side, but it might mean I fall short in a Premiership environment. There might be some skill set that transitions well but others not and I’d have to upskill myself.

“For the time being where I want to be is hopefully making England rugby union pathway the best in the world. That’s my ambition. What that looks like is having a successful game and development pathway for the lads coming through at 17, 18 and then give them a stepping stone into professional rugby and hopefully an experience going into professional rugby.”

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