It’s been two and a half years since the England Saxons were last seen, as the RFU’s designated second side, which also operates as England’s capture side, remains dormant.
The Saxons’ last action was in the summer of 2016, when the group toured South Africa and took on South Africa A in a two-match series, where they came under the stewardship of Ali Hepher, Andy Titterrell and Alan Dickens.
The Saxons won the series 2-0 and it provided a platform for a number of players to step up to full England honours, such as Alec Hepburn, Don Armand – now the top-ranked openside in the Gallagher Premiership with an RPI of 83 – and Charlie Ewels, as well as shining a further spotlight on Danny Cipriani, who returned to South Africa two years later with the senior England side.
Fixtures between the Saxons and the Irish Wolfhounds used to be commonplace and whilst you would think the shift in World Rugby regulations that mean U20 sides can no longer be the designated capture sides for nations, only the ‘second’ or ‘A’ sides, would result in more fixtures for the Saxons, it has instead seen them fade away.
With the likes of Will Addison and Mike Haley lost to Ireland, Jake Polledri throwing in with Italy and swathes more dual-eligible players having their eyes turned by the offer of more immediate international rugby with other nations, you would think that a revival of the Saxons would one of the more pressing concerns at the RFU.
If the Saxons and the Wolfhounds were to meet over the next couple of months, as used to be the way, what might the Saxons squad look like? Bearing in mind the purposes of the side, firstly as a stepping stone to the senior side, and secondly as a way of tying up players of promise who are being courted by other nations, we have put together what a prospective XV might look like.
In Thorley and Earle, you have arguably the two most in-form English wings in the Gallagher Premiership. They have been integral to their club sides this season, boast physical abilities which would see them able to cope with the step up to international rugby and at 22 (Thorley) and 24 (Earle), have their best years ahead of them and plenty of room to grow.
Goode is a slightly different approach, with the ever-impressive Saracen, for whatever reason, having been on the outside of Eddie Jones’ plans over the last three years. The Saxons would give him an opportunity to show he can replicate his club ability at a higher level, although if Jones is simply not interested in the full-back for style or skill set reasons, then it would be a chance to have a look at Jason Woodward, who has been involved with England’s senior side previously, although he has yet to win a cap.
A chance to see Atkinson or Mills at this level should be one that Jones would embrace. He has moved away from Owen Farrell at 12, instead slotting him into his preferred spot at 10, but it’s a shift which hinges significantly on Ben Te’o being fit. If Jones were to have an option cut from Farrell’s cloth at 12, such as Atkinson or Mills, it would be a nice security blanket for the Australian, who could then forge ahead with Farrell as his fly-half, knowing he has alternative options at 12.
Tying up Marchant would be another savvy move for England, with the 22-year-old earning some covetous glances of late. As he continues to grow more accustomed to Paul Gustard’s system at Harlequins and thrives alongside the swift and clinical operators of Earle and Marcus Smith, as well as the emerging pair of Cadan Murley and Gabriel Ibitoye, Marchant is looking more and more like a difference-maker at the next level.
Sale Sharks’ Sam James would be worth a look, too, whilst England tying down teammate Cam Redpath would give plenty of people peace of mind. Newcastle Falcons’ Jonny Williams is another that England should be keen to tie down, with the centre eligible for both Wales and Scotland.
Maunder already has an England cap to his name but is someone the senior side are likely to look increasingly towards in the next cycle, when both Danny Care and Ben Youngs may play lesser roles. The scrum-half has taken the opportunities that have come his way at Exeter well and this would be a chance to see how he does in a different environment with unfamiliar teammates. As a pure passing scrum-half, he is already quite polished.
As for Smith, he sees and uses space on a rugby pitch unlike any other English fly-half. He is a unique attacking weapon in England’s armoury and defensively he has embraced his smaller stature, consistently going low and efficiently chop tackling, rather than going high and being caught by fends. Unseating Farrell is an unenviable task and the experience of George Ford is likely to win out in a race for the back-up spot at the Rugby World Cup, making the Saxons a perfect way of helping to continue Smith’s development.
Genge is already a full international and should be right in the mix for the England 23 at the Six Nations, but so is Ben Moon, who was one of the standout performers of the November internationals. If Moon has done enough to seal the back-up spot behind Mako Vunipola, something which is conceivable with Genge having only recently come back from injury, then the 23-year-old could thrive with the Saxons.
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Worcester hooker Singleton has been knocking on England’s door over the last year or two, but it’s proven difficult to dislodge the trio of Dylan Hartley, Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie. In the Saxons, he could erase any doubts about his lineout throwing and show that he can step up to the next level. It’s a similar story for Stuart, who has flashed his ability this season for Wasps and England need to identify who can compete with Kyle Sinckler and Harry Williams in the next cycle, with plenty of talented young tightheads around in English rugby, but many of them lacking experience.
This pair have been just on the outside of England reckoning of late, with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury well-established as England’s quartet of locks for the short-term. That said, both Hill and Isiekwe have repeatedly distinguished themselves at Premiership and European levels and it’s a no-brainer to get a better look at two players likely to be more involved with the senior side in the next RWC cycle.
Dombrandt has been tearing up trees with Harlequins since his return to the club and Earl has fitted in seamlessly to Saracens’ back row, looking comfortable alongside players such as Billy Vunipola, Schalk Burger and Jackson Wray. There is no shortage of alternatives, either, with Lewis Ludlow, Ben Curry and Ted Hill – if not with England – chief among them, but these two would complement each other well and it would, like the second rows, prepare them for more involvement with the seniors in the next cycle.
Unfortunately for Mercer, he has seemed to be just on the outside of the England equation, with Vunipola a must-pick and both Mark Wilson and Nathan Hughes preferred by Jones when fit. The opportunity to be a leader and focal point with the Saxons, a role that Itoje excelled in a few years ago, could see him more successfully force his way into contention with that trio in the years to come. His abilities to keep phases alive, stretch defences and find space, even in the more congested areas of the pitch around the fringes, are arguably unsurpassed among English back rowers.
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