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'That was a scary process... knowing you could be cut at any point'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by World Rugby via Getty Images)

Hand on heart, the future of international rugby is in a good place just now judging by the array of entertaining personalities that RugbyPass has encountered these past few weeks at the Junior World Championship in South Africa. Given that the pandemic lockdown would have hit these kids hard at a crucial mid-to-late-teens stage of their personal development, the end product hasn’t been blunted.

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As characters from a myriad of different backgrounds from around the globe, they have made for a colourful bunch with interesting stories to tell rather than dull introverts who could have gone in on themselves due to the way-of-life restrictions of recent years.

Charlie Bracken definitely falls into this effervescent category. Here was yet another bubbly young man with a passion for rugby who eloquently said his piece when we sat with him in the downtown Cape Town hotel that England are occupying for the duration of a campaign that now has them knocking at heaven’s door – taking on France in Athlone on Sunday with a place in the U20s World Cup final at stake.

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It’s quite an achievement. Alarm bells rang pre-tournament about a squad that finished the recent Six Nations with a thud, losing twice in March when it most mattered after a three-game winning streak in February.

They then generated more of the wrong kind of headlines when ambushed by Georgia to share a two-match series in Tbilisi just weeks before flying to the southern hemisphere, but those lessons appear to have been lapped up by the Bracken class of 2023 gauging by their defiance in recent weeks.

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One win and two draws mightn’t look all that impressive on paper, but England exhibited guts to secure their invaluable stalemates versus Ireland and Australia, contests they would have lost but for a gritty determination to cling onto what they had. True, it initially left them bewildered last Tuesday in Paarl when the final whistle blew versus the Junior Wallabies to confirm a 22-all draw.

The fear was that the late concession of an unconverted try would count against them in the semi-final qualification race, but it ultimately didn’t once New Zealand’s match day three result filtered in from Stellenbosch to leave the English through to the knockouts as the fourth-ranked team. Cue relief and an apt reward for the heavy shift put in by Mark Mapletoft’s squad.

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“It’s an amazing tournament,” enthused Bracken, a try-scorer against the Wallabies and the eldest son of Kyran, the 2003 Rugby World Cup winner with England in Sydney. “We prepped really well and are all hungry for the games against these fantastic oppositions. We have come a long way and it is a very professional environment led by the coaches.

“All of them are doing a great job steering us in the right direction and then the captain, Lewis Chessum, is really driving us. The (34-all) game against Ireland really showed the fight we have in us, that we are not a side to be underestimated. All the boys have worked really hard.”

Camaraderie has also worked wonders. “Craig Wright is a very funny character, he brings a lot of life into the squad. You have also got Lewis – although he is the leader, he is a funny bloke as well and to be fair there is a range of comedians in the squad, but they know when to switch on.

“It’s a great mix of boys and I have made a lot of mates through the set-up. The Saracens boys Nathan (Michelow) and Tobias (Elliott) and then also good mates with Joe Woodward, Sam Harris; a lot of the backs I’d say I am quite close with from hanging out with them and hanging out on the field as well doing passing, kicking…”

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Junior World Championship selection was Bracken’s reward for his long dedication to learning his trade. “My dad introduced me to Saracens when I was probably six or seven and I actually didn’t want to go there as a child,” he said, explaining how he started out in the sport. “So I chose Barnet Elizabethans where more of my friends were at.

“It was my local rugby club; it only took me five minutes to get there so it was an easy drive or run down there, I had a lot of my mates playing there and I knew a lot of people, so it was quite easy to fit into that straight away and it has been rugby since then on.

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“I played it all the way through school. I have tried other sports. I tried a bit of basketball. Wasn’t tall enough. Tried a bit of cricket. Didn’t really like it. I was a goalkeeper in football for a bit, but rugby has always been the main sport.”

Counties selection followed, as did switching into the Saracens youths programme, and the London club’s senior academy scrum-half now has five first-team appearances on his CV, including a Gallagher Premiership debut off the bench in early May at Bath.

Progressing through the ranks was no mean feat. “It started off with the county stuff, which is where we have Hertfordshire, Essex and Kent. Within that, there were elite player programmes with just a few selected boys, which I managed to get into. Having that to start off with was really good.

“The counties would play each other and then you would get selected into the main academy squad, which was cut down month on month and was a scary process, but by the end of that we were into the academy and that was a great learning experience.

“Definitely, it was a lot of pressure at a young age and that was a good experience to help me with more stressful environments and with pressure and expectation, like you would get in a game for example, having to deal with knowing you could be cut at any point, so making sure you always played your best in and always giving it your all. It has helped me enjoy the game a bit more because you never know, any game can be your last.

“When covid was going on, I missed a bit of the England U18s stuff. That hindered my development a bit and I had symptoms of long covid, shortness of breath and that. Having missed out on that first camp, I was hungrier than ever to make my way back into that U18 set up and then it all accelerated from there really. I went from playing one U18s game into a 19s game and then into the 20s for a summer series in the blink of an eye, so that was great.”

The further Bracken has gone up the ranks, the more influential the pep talks from his dad who has seen and done it all himself. “More recently he has helped me quite a lot. I’m very critical of my own game, I don’t really see the good aspects. I mainly focus on where I can improve, so he is quite good at telling me where I have done well if I thought I have had a bad game.

“He will bring up, ‘Actually, you did this well, you did that well’, so he keeps me quite level-headed which is quite good after a game. He will give me a review and feedback so I can know where I stand really rather than having my own opinion determining everything.

“My dad has been a big inspiration, a great motivation. Even now looking back at some of his games, it is a great inspiration and it shows where hard work can get you. He has also been really helpful in terms of developing me as a player. For example, with skills, we would go out every weekend and do passing and kicking for hours.”

Give us an example of his feedback, though. “My dad gave me an eight out of 10 against Ireland but I was less than that,” he said with a chuckle. “I’d an alright game but I want to have a bit more of an impact, trying to play quickly and affecting the defence as much as I can.

“When I was younger, I used to focus on my mistakes a lot more than I do now. I like to focus on the mental side of things, coming into games with a real positive attitude, just going out to enjoy it and everything like that. All my prep I make sure I’m in the right mental state so that if something does go wrong or if I do make a mistake, I am able to bounce back from it quickly and focus on the next thing.”

Kryan Bracken was born in Co Dublin and used to get quite a fierce on-field reception whenever he played Ireland, so it was curious to hear his son Charlie reference how Jamison Gibson-Park, the current No9 in Andy Farrell’s Irish Test team, name-checked as a major influence on the English youngster’s energetic style of play.

“The main aspect of my game is getting that speed of ball. I know Jamison Gibson-Park is great at having that quick speed of ball. I’m sort of modelling like that, but I am also bringing to my game trying to beat defenders and bringing the ball to the line almost like (Antoine) Dupont but I don’t think I am a Dupont-like player. I’m a more passing, kicking type of nine.

“With the way the game is going and how quick teams play, having a nine that can service the ball at such speed is a great utility for a team so I’m trying to definitely model my game off that but everything can change in the blink of an eye really. As we have said with Gibson-Park coming through, he is a great player and he really helps out Ireland’s attack.”

Bracken’s younger brothers Jack and Lachlan are also an influence. “Jack plays for the England U18s at full-back. He started off as a scrum-half, but he got a bit big so he has gone to full-back. He is great to pass a ball around with, to kick with, and then my youngest Lachlan is a rising talent.

“He is in the counties set up where I once was but he is a great player, very skilful, and he is coming for my job basically. I told him he should probably go somewhere else. I said to him, ‘Just go to another club if you could’, but I think he might stay at Sarries and I might be the one that has to move in the end,” he quipped.

Bracken checks in at “around 5′ 10” and a half and I’m roughly around 82, 83 kilos. I want to put on a couple more kilos, but I want to keep my fitness because that is another strong part of my game. I want to stay as fit as I can but put on a bit more muscle and power. I don’t think I am going to get any taller, but to be fair as a nine you can’t be too tall so I am happy with the height I am in my position.”

The last word goes to Bracken’s situation at Saracens. Until now he has been combining his club rugby with geography studies at Loughborough University, but that balance will now tilt more to the rugby in 2023/24. “Saracens is an unbelievable club, a load of hard-working individuals. It’s a great environment, the first team is very welcoming and they all speak to the younger kids. I’m glad I am a part of that.

“In terms of the future, I’m planning to put more focus on rugby in the next couple of years. Not put uni on hold but split that over a longer period of time so I can get the most out of my rugby at the moment, learn off Owen Farrell, Ivan van Zyl whilst being in a full-time environment.”

Farrell especially has made a lasting impression. “He is a great role model, a great leader which is one of his really good qualities. He leads Sarries in such a great way. Similarly with England. He is that character that everyone looks up to and everyone feels comfortable playing with when you know you are being led by him.

“He shows you how far hard work can get you. He is very talented but he also works extremely hard and even still he is such a hard worker. He knows what it is like to be in the senior academy, so he is really nice.

“Also, he still expects high standards from us so if we are not up to standard, he will make that clear because he wants it to be an excellent training environment. Personally, he has helped me a lot. He has helped me with my kicking actually. Even though he is a fly-half he knows every aspect of the game, so he has been really useful.”

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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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