The Future of Rugby: England U23
We are beginning to approach the end of our Future of Rugby series and fresh on the heels of our examination of Ireland, we turn our attentions to beaten World Cup finalists England and their impressive array of U23 options. Having selected the youngest team in World Cup final history, England are not lacking for talented young players and the selection headaches that Eddie Jones will have to go through over this current cycle are only going to be exacerbated by the large English player pool.
We have put together our pick of the talent below, although with such a generous selection of players to call upon, there are plenty of decisions here that could easily have gone another way (for the purposes of this XV, only players aged 23 or younger on May 1, 2020, were considered eligible).
15. George Furbank, Northampton Saints
Having been Mike Brown’s jersey such a long period of time, there is now plenty of competition for Elliot Daly with Furbank having made his England debut earlier this year in the Guinness Six Nations. Riding in the wake of Furbank’s swift rise over the past few years are England apprentice Josh Hodge, emerging talent Freddie Steward and Saracens’ versatile Max Malins.
14. Joe Cokanasiga, Bath
Injuries and the form of Anthony Watson and Jonny May have prevented Cokanasiga from fully breaking through at the international level so far, but the glimpses of what he is capable of in an England jersey should have fans salivating. Ollie Thorley is also in the mix, as are the London Irish pair of Ben Loader and Ollie-Hassell-Collins, both of whom have held their own well following Irish’s splurge on internationals last summer.
13. Joe Marchant, Harlequins
Fraser Dingwall and Ollie Lawrence are both knocking on this door, although for now Marchant would seem to be the next man up thanks to his extra season or two of experience. It’s a shame that Marchant’s stint in Super Rugby with the Blues has been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, but he should still come back a more rounded and improved player as well as one of the few English players to have experienced such a different environment in the formative years of his career.
12. Cameron Redpath, Bath
Two of Redpath’s team-mates, Luke James from his days at Sale Sharks and Max Ojomoh at new club Bath, are hot on his heels. Redpath is coveted by both England and Scotland and were it not for an injury suffered in his final season at Sedbergh, he may well have England caps already. If England are looking to continue their selection policy of opting for a playmaker at twelve, Redpath would seem to fit the mould.
11. Gabriel Ibitoye, Harlequins
When Ibitoye gets his hands on the ball, good things invariably tend to happen. As an attacking option, his footwork, acceleration and eye for space are up there with any player that England can call upon. He continues to round out the other areas of his game and would seem to be next in line for an England cap. Team-mate Cadan Murley and Northampton Saints pair Ollie Sleightholme and Josh Gillespie are also worth keeping an eye on.
10. Marcus Smith, Harlequins
Another position where England don’t lack for options, although there is no pressing need to move on from the pair of George Ford and Owen Farrell. Exeter Chiefs’ Joe Simmonds rivals Smith, as does Wasps’ Jacob Umaga and Northampton’s James Grayson. Saracens have leant on Manu Vunipola already and Tom Curtis will be one to watch at Sale, as English clubs seem happy to rely on younger homegrown fly-halves. For now, Smith’s appreciation of space and ability to exploit it set him apart, not to mention an unerring accuracy kicking from the tee.
9. Jack Maunder, Exeter Chiefs
Maunder and Alex Mitchell will both hope that when incumbent scrum-halves leave Exeter and Northampton this summer, their opportunities to start increase moving into the 2020/21 season. With England’s senior options at the position heading into the twilight of their careers, there is a pathway there for Maunder and Mitchell, either of whom could move into pole position with the right continued development.
1. Lewis Boyce, Bath
England’s U23 options at the position aren’t overflowing, but Boyce has made an impressive start to his career at Bath and will be confident he can force his way into a group that already boasts Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge and potentially Beno Obano moving forward. The ex-Yorkshire Carnegie prop does not lack for physicality and abrasiveness in the loose and as he matures as a scrummager, he should begin to exert pressure on the current senior group.
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2. Jack Singleton, Saracens
An England international already, Singleton sees off competition from the fast-rising Alfie Barbeary, while Jack Walker could also be in the mix if he can stay fit and Bristol Bears’ Will Capon is quietly and successfully acclimatising to senior rugby. If Singleton can become more consistent with his lineout throwing, he will present a potent challenge to Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie moving forward.
3. Will Stuart, Bath
Stuart made his England debut during the Six Nations and did not look out of place at all at that level. He has hit the ground running at Bath following his 2019 move from Wasps and has taken his game even higher than the potential he flashed in the midlands promised. He is cementing himself as Kyle Sinckler’s deputy, but England don’t lack for U23 tighthead options with Marcus Street, Joe Heyes and Ehren Painter all making their mark in the Premiership.
4. Joel Kpoku, Saracens
The giant lock was the subject of a tug of war between Saracens and Northampton this season, one that Saracens eventually won and something that will continue to pay off for them over the coming years. Though his size singled him out as a player of particular potential in the age-grades, it’s the technical refinement that he has gone through that is now allowing him to excel at the senior club level and begin to push a case for international involvement.
5. Alex Moon, Northampton Saints
Moon takes this spot for now, but his Northampton team-mate Alex Coles is breathing down his neck, with both having been shown faith by Chris Boyd. They are currently in the process of repaying that and the early signs have been very promising. Moon is an out and out lock, but Coles could yet flourish in the Pieter-Steph du Toit role on the blindside should he and Northampton want to continue down that route.
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6. Tom Curry, Sale Sharks
One of half of the “Kamikaze Twins”, Curry has consistently shown himself to be one of the most effective back rows in world rugby over the past twelve months and it is staggering that he is still just 21 years of age. Curry was an obvious pick here for numerous reasons, although if the aforementioned du Toit role is one they want to explore, Nick Isiekwe and Ted Hill are intriguing options, while Exeter’s Richard Capstick will begin to turn heads in the coming years.
7. Sam Underhill, Bath
The ‘Kamikaze Twins’ duo is completed with Underhill’s selection and given the performances the pair put in at the World Cup, they are the clear and obvious partnership here. Just as there was with Curry, however, there is plenty of competition here for Underhill, such as Ben Earl, Jack Willis and Curry’s twin brother, Ben. Keep an eye out for London Irish’s Izaiha Moore-Aino, too.
8. Zach Mercer, Bath
There are more like-for-like size options to push Billy Vunipola, such as Alex Dombrandt and Rus Tuima, but Mercer has consistently shown himself to be a difference-maker at the Premiership level. If he gets a run of games at the international level, it would not be surprising to see him emulate that effectiveness and give Jones pause for thought on the balance of his back row moving forward.
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