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'My number one aim is to find Red Roses': James Cooper on developing England’s next generation

By Matt Merritt
England Women U18 head coach James Cooper -Robbie Stephenson/JMP - 11/04/2023 - RUGBY - Wellington College - Crowthorne, England - England Women U18s v Italy Women U18s - Women’s U18 Six Nations Festival

Is there anything more exciting as a rugby fan than discovering a new player who has the potential to reach the very highest level? If you’ve ever followed a club team there will have been an academy or centre of excellence player who you’ve seen a glimpse of in the cup and can’t wait to see them step up fully into the first team. Now imagine that’s a job…. James Cooper is head coach of England Women under 18s so he gets to regularly see young players showing their potential, and to play a key role in helping them along the way.

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English rugby has been through the wringer in the past eight months with clubs collapsing, a shaky performance from the men’s team in the lead-up to their World Cup and concerns about the future of the game below the top tiers, but throughout that the Red Roses have continued to impress. Despite losing well-known figureheads of the game they have a seemingly inexhaustible conveyer belt of talent just waiting for their opportunity to shine.

Speaking to Cooper at the tail end of 2023, shortly after a three-day residential for the under-18s players, he was quick to highlight the clarity of the player pathway. “It’s been great looking at the Red Roses, down in New Zealand for WXV, being able to show the girls [in the under-18s squad] that you’re not a million miles away from this.

“Ella [Wyrwas] was here a couple of years ago, Maisie Allen spoke to the media in the Six Nations as an under-20. It makes that next step more tangible for these players”

The addition of transition (apprentice) player contracts for the likes of Lilli Ives Campion, Lizzie Duffy and Grace Clifford also helps players to understand there are achievable goals along the way to running out as a fully-fledged senior Red Rose.

In order to make that path as smooth as possible, Cooper and his team have reshaped the way the under-18s squad comes together. “In August we did regional camps. So north, south-east and south-west. Same again at the end of September/start of October. We have three days in each and that just gives us the opportunity to look at 96 players across the camps, which gives us a bigger base to see players who maybe we hadn’t seen last year or who have developed over the summer, or perhaps were in under 16s last year and have gone really well in the sense of excellence.”

“We’ve pulled them together earlier this time. So we invited 50 into our late October camp, After illness and injury, it was down to 44. From here, we had an internal game at the start of December. So there’s going to be 46 players at that, some of whom weren’t in previous camps because they were told they were not quite ready or because they had injuries, but we watched them at their centres of excellence”

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“After the internal game, we’ll reduce it down again to probably 32 to 36 players. We’ll have camps in January and February, play in Ireland at the start of March and have a camp later in the month, then it’s the Six Nations.

“We try to get them once a month on average, just to get those regular touch points with them. But even once we select the 36 after the internal game, I still will pull players into our camp if they’ve developed because a 16 or 17-year-old in September is very different to where they will be by February/March time.

“There are three examples I keep rolling out and the players are probably getting bored of hearing about them: At the Six Nations last year, there was a girl who only came into a camp in March, yet she got selected. There was another player who did our August and September camps, we didn’t feel she was quite ready, but we kept tabs on her.

“She came in as injury cover during the Six Nations and then there’s another girl who did all the camps up until December. Again, we didn’t think she was quite ready. Gave her some feedback. She didn’t come back into a camp and we still selected her for Six Nations. So, it’s understanding that players develop at different rates, and we need to be out and about seeing how they are doing.”

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“The next step after that for the top-end players is that is moving on into the under 20s world as well as going off to university. So we’ve had LJ Lewis, the new under-20s Head Coach, she’s come along to a couple of camps and Sarah McKenna, who’s her assistant coach has been in with us, trying to make really close links so they can see who’s coming up and coming through ready for the season after that.”

The growth of the Premiership Women’s Rugby, as well as the success of the Red Roses, means that more and more girls are picking up a rugby ball and, crucially, finding teams they can join.

“Every year, for a number of years now, the standard of girls coming into our programme at 16 or 17 years old, is higher than the previous group. That’s down to the centres of excellence doing their job, the standard of college rugby going up. The pathway is building nicely. Those 96 girls we had in our regional trials were great and they were hard decisions telling some of them they’re not ready yet. And it really is about the word yet.”

Traditionally rugby has benefitted a lot from multi-discipline athletes who transition into the sport later in their journey or from people finding rugby in their teens, but Cooper cites a number of players in the current group who have been playing since they were just starting school, alongside a mix of girls finding the game as they got older or coming to it fresh, but with a gifted athletic background, perhaps as a footballer whose eye for space makes them a gifted distributor, or in the case of the northern group in some cases they’ve played and may continue to play rugby league alongside the union game.

Some of the current group have played in Challenge Cup finals in Wembley at 16 or 17 years old, an experience that can’t be replicated in training, but a crucial one for teams who target winning at the highest levels.

The average age of a debuting player in the PWR is 22, so with the Centre of Excellence system finishing at 18, that leaves a four-year gap for a lot of young players, years where they may play for university teams or learn some key skills in the Championship where they could feature for familiar names like Bath, Richmond, or London Irish or develop their skills at clubs like Old Albanians, Cheltenham, or Novocastrians who have a rich history.

For now, though, they’ll be focused ahead on a run of camps, a trip to Ireland and then on to the Six Nations in Colwyn Bay, which will take place in late March/early April. Given these players are still developing, and have commitments on their time outside of rugby (most will still be students). The format is a little different. The first two matchdays consist of two 35-minute matches against different countries with the final matchday being a full 70-minute matchup.

“We play all five countries” Cooper confirms “We play four 35-minute matches and then that final 70-minute game. I’ve asked for that to be against France again. They’re the benchmark we want to keep testing ourselves against. Their pathway system is working well and they are going well so the only way we can mark our development is by facing them. I might be a sucker for punishment if it doesn’t go quite right, but it’s the only way we can be sure of where we are!”

“My number one aim is to find Red Roses. I’ve got to look for the girls who will win us World Cups in 2029 and 2033 in Australia and the USA. The juxtaposition is that we have to play games now, so we need a certain level of ability and performance. Some people might question why we are playing particular players at the moment, in some cases we need to play those who are not as far along their journey but who have a higher ceiling!”

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