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Mark Mapletoft: 'Stuff like that winds me up, it’s cheap and easy'

By Liam Heagney
England U20s coach Mark Mapletoft (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Mark Mapletoft was feeling the 30°C heat last Monday when talking to RugbyPass from his hotel room in Tbilisi, but it would have felt stickier a few days later when his England U20s – the reigning Six Nations champions – were hammered by 17-45 by Georgia in sweltering Eastern European summer conditions.

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Given that they are about to fly to South Africa for the World Rugby U20 Championship, a tournament that will be played in the southern hemisphere mid-winter, it sounds daft that Mapletoft and co prepared in a very different climate. However, there was sound logic to their apparent madness.

Playing two games in five days mimicked the schedule awaiting in Cape Town, while the Georgian physicality can hopefully leave them battle-hardened for the Argentinian and South African brutes they will face in a pool campaign also containing Fijian flair.

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The other factor to weigh in is that the England head coach has been in this unsettling position before. His class of 2023 comfortably won their first warm-up encounter with the Georgians before being ambushed in the rematch a few days later.

Defeat did them no harm as they reached the semi-finals some weeks later in South Africa, and they will expect a similar bounce back this time around especially as before Wednesday’s loss, Mapletoft had suggested that things were looking rosy with the squad back in harness following their epic March title-clinching win away to France in Pau.

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“We have come back in a pretty good place… a lot of lads had a conditioning block, you can see them filled out, put a bit of weight on which young lads are going to do at that time of year, so it’s positive stuff. Look, we know we come with targets on our back but at the same time, that’s part of elite sport.”

Their World Rugby Championship rivals will have watched the live Facebook broadcast of the two-match series from Tbilisi with the same relish England watched the recent Rugby Championship from Australia, a new tournament created after last year’s World Cup resulted in three Six Nations sides making the semi-finals compared to one southern representative.

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“The irony, let’s go to the Sunshine Coast and play in a monsoon,chuckled Mapletoft about the April action that endured some initial terrible weather.It’s a little bit hard to be too judgmental but we have two of those teams in our pool and most of the lads watched it. Some interesting results and plenty to get our teeth into with analysis.”

“I always find it really fascinating, a lot of people say kids these days don’t watch a lot of rugby but I just don’t buy into that. A lot of the lads are massively into the game and watch it and it’s so easily accessible now compared to what it used to be, so I don’t buy that at all.”

Losing to Georgia was a reminder that tagging England as World Rugby U20 Championship favourites isn’t a safe-as-houses prediction.I understand why people would say that if you are coming in having won the Six Nations but we’re smart enough to know we won the Six Nations by an extra bonus point.

“Ireland were also unbeaten. France have won the last three World Cups. We didn’t make the final last year, not that that necessarily should be a factor. New Zealand come here on the back of winning the U20s Rugby Championship. The hosts are always going to be tough to beat at home. I’d imagine there would be four or five teams. We acknowledge we come in as probably one of the favourites but it’s a wide-open tournament.”

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One that will take its toll, not only on players playing every five days but also on coaches.It’s the intensity of it, the time. I have done this before, been on many trips and I was tired towards the end of last year’s tournament. It’s pretty relentless and it’s about managing, knowing when to really push hard and when not to.

“We are out in Georgia trying to mimic that five-day turnaround but it’s different because the sun is shining, there is a 30-metre swimming pool on level three, there are distractions, it’s hot. You go to South Africa, it’s not like that. It’s wintertime. A bit more touristy but at the same time it comes with a little bit of caution with being out and about. It comes with those sorts of challenges… it’s a brilliant experience.”

England’s youngsters will aspire to catch Steve Borthwick’s eye from afar just like 2022/23 graduates Chandler Cunningham-South, who was capped four times in the recent Six Nations, and Greg Fisilau, who made recent training squads. It’s a great advert for the players and highlights to them that if they have got what it takes then they are not a million miles away from being in the big league, playing for their country in some big matches.

“Chandler was a very, very impactful player last year for us. He certainly utilised his experiences at London Irish in the 20s to bounce into a new career with Quins. He definitely improved in areas that no doubt he would have targeted himself and said,Look, I need to crack into it straight away, I need to keep doing this because I’m good at it but I need to layer on that’. It’s a brilliant lesson.”

That said, Mapletoft is restrained regarding the public expectation that his 20s should produce Test stars of tomorrow every year.Just because you have or haven’t won a Junior World Cup doesn’t mean that those players are going to be world-class. I mean, South Africa have won what, four World Cups and one Junior World Championship. There is no obvious correlation.

It’s unrealistic to expect that year after year after year to churn out players that are going to go on and play at the top level. Often that’s what people judge it on and the reality is it’s like filling a jug with water.

“If the jug is a third full, it takes two-thirds to fill it and there is quite a lot to put into it and you are naturally going to get several players moving up into international rugby. As time goes on and the jug fills, there is less to fill. If those players have already established themselves, there is not going to be a massive amount of opportunity for others to get capped.

“Over the last eight to 10 years, we had a group of backs that pick themselves, so it’s been very hard for others to get a look in. Now over time (Ben) Youngs, (Danny) Care, (Owen) Farrell, Manu (Tuilagi) has had his injuries, Henry (Slade) has been around for a long time, Jonny May, Mike Brown, Anthony Watson has dropped away.

A lot of these guys (going) has suddenly presented an opportunity for some youngsters. Now if that current crop of your (Jack) van Poortvliets, Fin Smiths, Marcus Smiths, Tommy Freemans, Henry Arundells, if they have got first dibs on the shirt then they are going to start to fill the jug. So it doesn’t matter how many good young players you bring through, they might not get an opportunity.

“Where the jug probably isn’t quite as full is up front and Chandler has already jumped into the jug, Greg Fisilau is on the fringes and which of these lads in this current cohort are going to jump into that space?”

Mapletoft’s playing career highlights how narrow the window of opportunity can be to succeed at Test level. He won a single senior cap, on tour in Argentina in 1997, and it’s a story the 52-year-old uses to sharpen the focus of the young talent he now nurtures.I’d several serious knee injuries which were untimely. It stops your momentum and you don’t realise your window is a bit smaller.

“What you then have to do is work extra hard and I would definitely reflect on my career and say,Look, did I work as hard as I needed to have done to regather that momentum?’ People who do get into coaching often use their personal experiences… you’re always reflecting on how could you do things better, what worked, what didn’t and you keep that story,reckoned the Gloucester, Saracens, Harlequins and London Irish player.

I’m so old it was U21s and we had a successful tour to Australia, a bit of who’s who of English rugby. A lot of those lads, that U21s from Australia in ’93 went on to win the World Cup 10 years later. We didn’t have Junior World Cups in those days, but there was a high percentage of household names on that trip.

“I remember we came back and got visited by Don Rutherford. I can’t remember exactly what his role was at the RFU, but he came with this huge folder and sat me down. It was almost like a training diary,This is what you need to be doing. This is what you need to eat’.

“But it was like presented to you and off you go. People probably did bits but didn’t actually really know what to do with it, to be honestit was unsupervised and I just look now at the support these players get, it’s just light years ahead in that regard.

It’s very easy for people of my generation to throw out things like,Lads these days don’t play multi-sports, they don’t have game understanding like the old days, they don’t watch rugby’. Crikey, anyone who is my age probably got an hour’s worth of rugby special on a Sunday night growing up and that was it.

“There wasn’t any rugby to watch. Stuff like that really winds me up because it’s cheap and easy. What we have to understand is kids these days have a lot of choices and not everybody wants to be a rugby player. It’s finding those who can be so.”

Same with coaching. How do you make it a career that lasts through to retirement age given its challenging, ever-evolving requirements?That’s a great question and I was actually talking to Nathan Catt about that today,reflected Mapletoft, who retired from playing in 2005.There was only one thing I was adamant about when I finished playing, I was going to learn my trade.

I’d been a player and knew how much of an arse I could be at times and I didn’t have a huge desire to coach lots of me, to be blunt. So I was really interested in learning what coaching is about and was adamant I was going to go in the academy system if the opportunity arose.

“It was a very quick decision of,I’m going to retire, I can’t keep playing at the same level, I’m not the player I was’. I recognised that. Sometimes you just need somebody to be a bit blunt with you and say,Listen, I’m not quite sure you are the player you were’. The opportunity arose pretty quickly.”

Mapletoft’s academy coaching apprenticeship was followed by 10 years at Harlequins where he helped his current RFU boss Conor O’Shea guide the Londoners to the club’s first Premiership title in 2012, but he is now full circle and back at age-grade level.I have always been very open around really enjoying working with the young players,he explained.

“This is more directed at players who played Prem, international rugby, the guys who get there generally, if we are honest, have some kind of ego – you must to make it elite sport. Whether you come across as the nicest guy in the world, you have got a bit of a streak in you that you’re willing to sacrifice other things to get to the very top.

“It has been well documented about absolute superstars of the game who really struggle post-playing because their strive is no longer there. So if you are in that place as an ex-player, coaching isn’t something just to roll into and it isn’t that easy.

“If you are serious about coaching – and this is not preaching, I have been coaching for 20 years so I have a voice on it and you have asked me a question – I would genuinely say learn your craft, work out if you actually do want to be a coach.

“Some people can roll into it and be incredibly successful straightaway. I was pleased to see Phil (Dowson) jump into that space at Saints and achieve what he has done. A fantastic achievement and a meteoric rise in a lot of ways, but it isn’t like that for a lot of people.

A lot of people, particularly in all the clubs that have gone under the last 18 months, can’t find jobs. It’s very, very competitive and I genuinely believe if you are going to enjoy it – it’s not about being successful, not everyone can win everything – and really get the most out of it you have got to be super, super passionate about it.”

Just like Mapletoft is.

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