It certainly could happen. Home advantage, Owen Farrell makes things happen, puncher’s chance etc etc. That said, if you like your optimism to be a little more realistic, then you might need to look at the level below the England senior side.
England went to the final of the World Rugby U20 Championship in the summer, only to face defeat at the hands of a ruthlessly physical French side, but could they go one step further this season and lift their fourth world title?
We have taken a stab at what the squad may look like this season and, for our money, it boasts as much talent as any of the sides turned out by England since the U20 classification was born in 2008.
* denotes players who may be retained by clubs during the U20 Six Nations
**denotes U18 players
Toby Trinder and Alex Seville have both moved on from the U20s, so it’s a completely new group for England this season. In Adkins and Owen, forwards coach Mark Hopley would get to work with two players who have already shouldered the responsibility of senior rugby this season. They have both looked comfortable making that step up, with loosehead stocks at Gloucester and Worcester Warriors depleted by injury, providing them with valuable opportunities.
In terms of the cover, should both players still be required by their clubs during the U20 Six Nations, Kenny is a second-year player at this level, something which is particularly valuable in the front row, and Rodd is the dynamic player in the loose that England have been attempting to cultivate in their front rowers over recent years.
Heyes should return for a second season at this level, whilst Street would be embarking on his third campaign with the side, despite injury denying him a shot at the U20 Championship last season. Given the experience England have at tighthead, not to mention the impact Heyes has begun to make at senior level, it should be considered a position of strength this season.
Petch was a strong scrummager at U18 level, where he frequently and aggressively went after opposition looseheads. The physical demands to do that take a significant leap at U20 level, but Exeter players don’t usually want for a physical edge, especially once they have signed professional terms and commit to rugby.
A really exciting group of hookers, who all offer something slightly different. Capon would probably be favourite to start, with a refined all-round game that should keep England sharp at the set-piece, but also dangerous in the loose. Ma’asi is no stranger to competing with Capon, with the two having gone head-to-head at U18 level for England, whilst Barbeary is the coming force in English rugby, having lit up U18 rugby as an U17 last season and now beginning to earn senior playing time with Wasps in the Premiership Cup.
Honourable Mentions – Jack Musk (Harlequins), Sam Elrick (Bath), Sam Riley** (Harlequins)
Kpoku would return from last season’s side and would likely be one of the very first names on the teamsheet. He was England’s most consistent and effective player in France this summer and he has shown that he can replicate that at senior level. Josh Basham left London Irish in the summer to study in the north-east and could have a new club by February, and both he and Scott would bring experience to the group, returning for second seasons.
With Saracens likely to lose Maro Itoje, George Kruis and possibly Nick Isiekwe to England for the senior Six Nations, there’s a good chance Kpoku will be retained, opening the door for Coles. There’s no reason why, with a good U20 Six Nations under his belt, Coles can’t push for a spot in the U20 Championship squad, after injury all but wiped out his 2017/18 season. In fact, there’s a good chance he would be favoured to Basham, should the former London Irish man not be affiliated with a club.
Both Hill and Hinkley bring continuity from last season, as well as well-defined roles as a power carrier and a jackal respectively. Hill also brings versatility, with his ability to cover the second row, and Hinkley’s strength and balance over the ball at the contact area looks to have really improved in his second year as a professional. Christie wasn’t involved last year but, again, looks to have improved as a player in his second year of professional rugby and offers real versatility, capable of performing to a high standard across the entire back row.
Capstick rounds out the core group of four flankers and, like Hill, also covers lock, whilst Terry’s impressive performances in the Premiership Cup could be enough to see him sneak in ahead of a very crowded field of eligible flankers, especially with his academy manager Richard Whiffin involved as attack coach this season.
Honourable Mentions – Henri Lavin (Leicester Tigers), Sam Dugdale (Sale Sharks), James Dun (Bristol Bears), Ben Donnell (London Irish)
Number Eight – Tom Willis (Wasps) and Rus Tuima (Exeter Chiefs)
This has the potential to be a very dynamic duo. Willis was a real handful at U18 level and has had a taste of senior rugby over the last 12 months, but probably didn’t quite make the impact at U20 level that he would have liked last season. Combining his power with that of Tuima, who you can hear more from here, would give England a regular source of front-foot ball and two carriers who are not only able to keep phases alive, but who actively seek to whenever possible.
Honourable Mentions – Izaiha Moore-Aiono (London Irish), Rob Farrar (Newcastle Falcons), JJ Tonks (unattached)
Another Maunder and, just like his older brother Jack, Sam is already featuring in Exeter’s senior side as an 18-year-old. As a starter, with the effervescent talents of Nordli-Kelemeti coming off the bench, this has the potential to be England’s most promising half-back one-two punch at U20 level over the last 10 years. Both are raw and inexperienced at this level, so don’t expect instant miracles, but the long-term potential is definitely there.
Honourable Mentions – Ewan Fenley (Gloucester), Gus Warr (Sale Sharks) and Conor Tupai (Northampton Saints)
It’s a no-brainer to start with Smith, who has showcased his talents repeatedly at this level and with the Harlequins senior side. Hardwick would return for a second season, not only competing at fly-half, but also covering inside centre.
There’s not a chance that Smith is released to England during the U20 Six Nations, so Wilkinson is a more than able replacement in February and March, with the potential to push for a spot at the U20 Championship, especially if Hardwick prospers at 12.
Honourable Mentions – Manu Vunipola (Saracens), Tom Curtis** (Sale Sharks), George Barton** (Gloucester)
Centre – Ollie Lawrence* (Worcester Warriors), Cameron Redpath* (Sale Sharks), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints) and Harry Barlow (Harlequins), with Charlie Powell (Bristol Bears) and Oli Morris (Saracens) covering the U20 Six Nations
Just like on the flanks, the centres are incredibly congested positions this season.
The trio of Lawrence, Redpath and Dingwall are certainties to return from last season’s squad if fit and available, but the competition for the fourth spot is fierce. We have ultimately plumped for Barlow due to his versatility to also cover the wings and full-back, with an ability to play multiple positions often the key influencer in selections for squads like this, where you are limited to taking a relatively small number of players for quite a heavy workload of rugby.
If England lose just Lawrence during the U20 Six Nations, they will count themselves lucky, although it’s feasible that Redpath will have been back from his ACL injury for long enough to have forced himself into the first team equation at Sale. Should those two be unavailable, Bristol’s Powell and Saracens’ Morris are good alternatives.
Honourable Mentions – Conor Doherty (Sale Sharks), Luke James (Sale Sharks), Jacob Reeves (Gloucester)
Wing – Tom Seabrook (Gloucester), Ollie Sleightholme (Northampton Saints) and Morgan Passman (Newcastle Falcons)
Seabrook was on the cusp of the squad last year and should take one of the spots, especially with his ability to play across the midfield, too. Sleightholme has impressed everyone with his physical abilities since turning professional and looks bigger and quicker than he did in the U18 ranks, and both he and Seabrook will be well known by Hopley and Whiffin respectively.
The final spot is a hard call and could go to any one of a number of players, but we’ve gone for Passman, whose physical presence is unique among the options. He is an intriguing prospect moving forward.
Honourable Mentions – Cadan Murley (Harlequins), Ollie Hassell-Collins (London Irish) and Jacob Morris (Gloucester)
Full-back – Tom de Glanville (Bath) and Will Simonds (Wasps)
It may be that de Glanville is looked at as a 10 or a 12 instead, but his talent is such that he is going to find his way into the team, one way or another. At full-back, he offers England the dual-playmaker roles at 10 and 15 that they have so coveted at this level in recent years. Simonds, too, offers flexibility and has been used in the centres by Wasps this season, as well as being comfortable on the wing. Between de Glanville’s ability to split the back line and his kicking game and Simond’s counter-attacking ability, England would have a complementary pairing at the back.
Honourable Mentions – Reece Dunn (Gloucester), Josh Hodge (Newcastle Falcons), Louis Lynagh** (Harlequins)
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