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The ‘calmness about him’ gamble England U20s are enjoying at No10

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

Topping Pool B after two matches at the Junior World Championship wasn’t how it was predicted to turn out for England in South Africa. They had fallen away last March in the U20s Six Nations when the going got tougher after an unbeaten February, they then lost head coach Alan Dickens to an offer from Leicester, and a shared series last month with Georgia further sounded the alarm bells.

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How good then that new boss Mark Mapletoft decided to stick with his calculated punt on Connor Slevin, the full-back he had known from his days in the Harlequins academy. He had been in the original Six Nations squad chosen last January as a 15 but wasn’t capped. Now, he has travelled to South Africa with the onerous challenge of making England tick as their starting No10.

It was on June 1 in Tbilisi when Mapletoft first trialled the positional switch, naming Slevin at out-half after he had started the opening match of their Georgian tour at full-back. England were beaten but the headline-grabbing loss didn’t the new head coach as he named Slevin as the No10 against Ireland and Fiji and has been richly rewarded.

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The Harlequins youngster has taken to the task with aplomb, his classy contributions pivotal in the opening day 34-all draw in Paarl versus the Irish and again in Thursday’s 53-7 dismissal of Fijians in Stellenbosch. “I thought our half-backs were again excellent,” he enthused to RugbyPass in the aftermath.

“Nye Thomas controlled the game really well, offered a real threat on the ball, and Connor, every time he plays he seems to have a calmness about him which for a man who hasn’t really played an awful lot at fly-half is credit to him.”

What prompted Mapletoft to gamble on re-positioning Slevin? “Very good question. We have had a lot of injuries in that position across the country. Monty Bradbury unfortunately picked up a bad knee injury and he had played the games in the Six Nations.

“Sam Worsley came on against Ireland but unfortunately wasn’t able to be selected out here, and Sam Harris has played a lot at fly-half for Bath University but predominantly played full-back and then Sam has been struggling a little bit as well.

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“It was really a question of Louie (Johnson) and Connor taking on the load at 10 and both are terrific guys I have known through the underage teams. I have known Connor actually since he was 16 when was at the Quins academy. There is an awful lot of trust in those lads and they are repaying that now.”

England had the advantage last Thursday of playing in their pool’s later game and having seen Ireland do a number on Australia in the rain in Paarl, Mapletoft’s team knew then needed to run up a big score over in Stellenbosch against Fiji to enhance their points difference as that could well be how the pool winners are decided after next Tuesday’s final round of matches.

“We talked about that,” admitted Mapletoft about the points difference scenario. “The lads watched the game and it was fantastic from Ireland to stay in the fight and really squeeze that out in the end. They laid the gauntlet down, and we really enjoyed the game against them last weekend. It was a terrific game, one of the best I have seen so far, so credit to them and we had to match that.

“You can’t control what other people do, you can only look after your own performances and we will be doing our preparation and recovery ahead of Australia. It’s an incredible tournament, with some really surprising results in the South Africa, Italy, Argentina and Georgia pool. It flipped on its head from the first round.

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“We will certainly digest that over the next 24 hours, review that, see where we can improve and get ourselves dusted down for Australia. A very good game plan went to plan against Fiji. We got that right in terms of the conditions. We had done our prep with the lads who weren’t involved against Ireland, I had a good look at Fiji and we had that player ownership and leadership, came up with a simple game plan given the conditions and I thought it was a pretty clinical performance.

“It was wet, very greasy and I thought to play in the right areas of the field as consistently as we did and also some of our defence was terrific as was our set-piece was really on top by the end. That is what you need in those conditions.”

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