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The 'no airs or graces' backstory to an unexpected England call-up

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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London Irish boss Declan Kidney has given an insight into Tom Pearson, the unknown rookie flanker surprisingly called into the England squad during the recent Guinness Six Nations. It was February 8 when Eddie Jones threw a curveball into the national team mix, naming the Exiles’ 22-year-old in a 36-man squad for the round two match away to Italy even though at that stage he had only played ten first-team club matches in his breakthrough season in the pro ranks. 

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Pearson didn’t travel out to Rome that weekend after two days of training with England. The forward instead returned to Irish to appear off their bench against Bristol in the Gallagher Premiership, but he was named in the 25-man England squad that assembled for the fallow week training camp in London in between the round two and three matches of the championship.    

That left England boss Jones to get more of a close-up of Pearson, the back-rower that no one outside of London Irish would genuinely have heard of before his Test level call-up. Taking a punt on unheralded youth has long been a trait of the Jones modus operandi and it is a tactic that Declan Kidney, the Exiles’ director of rugby, is a fan of providing the call-up is properly explained to the youngsters asked along to England training. 

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“There is a lot of merit to it,” said Kidney when quizzed this week by RugbyPass about an England set-up that a number of uncapped London Irish youngsters were invited to over the course of the last three Test windows, stretching back to June when Chunya Munga was selected by Jones. 

“What has to be done is explain clearly to the player where they stand in it because sometimes if you are called in it can be ‘you are this close to the team’ whereas sometimes you just say, ‘Look, come in, experience what it is like so that you can go away and you know more about what you have to bring to it in the future’.

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“To be straight up and honest with the players like that, which Eddie is, that is important. There can be a lot of outside influences with players if they get called into an England squad. All of a sudden they have gone from nothing to being an England player, contracts are looking to be adjusted and a lot of other things but really it is for the experience that you are giving him the chance.

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“You want players to be paid properly but at the same time you don’t want them to be getting notions to say, ‘Well, I’m in the English squad now’. Just because you are there for a session or two doesn’t mean you have nailed it, it’s only actually when you have been capped and you have to be on a side that wins before you are a real international player.”

As a former international level head coach with Ireland, Kidney understands the Jones approach with England and why Pearson was an attraction in February. “Look, when you are doing international rugby you are always looking to see is there somebody out there that might just have that ingredient. 

“I haven’t been speaking to Eddie about it but he obviously liked what he saw in the few matches and threw him in there at the tail end of the squad and that is a compliment to Tom and to Ollie (Hassell-Collins) and the work that our coaches do here as well then too in trying to bring players through to the English squad. 

“There are a lot of players who have gone through London Irish and into the English squad but they have left here to go to other clubs and I always felt they could go to the English squad from the work that is done here in London Irish. Tom and Ollie were just on the fringe of that.

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“Will Goodrick-Clarke was there for a few sessions, Chunya was there last summer and that is what we want to be doing here, bringing players through into the English squad. Especially with the remit in just over two years’ time that you have to have 15 English-qualified players in your (Premiership matchday) squad, so it is very important that not alone do we bring them through but that we hang onto them too.”

Asked to reflect on Pearson and his breakthrough first season at London Irish, Kidney added: “Sometimes that is the way it happens. He was in the Gloucester academy and didn’t make the cut. That is not a reflection on Gloucester because we all do that with players but he went back then playing with Cardiff Met, played BUCS rugby, went back to just enjoying his rugby and then what we saw we liked.

“So we brought him in and we played him against Exeter, which was a bit of a turning point for us earlier in the season, and then we made sure not to overplay him because younger fellas at that age put in a massive effort. England are searching for younger fellas. It doesn’t mean they are flat out in the English squad but they are going to bring them in for a bit of experience just to see what they are like. 

“Tom has had a big rise that way and had a lot of experiences over the last six or seven months. What type of character is he? He is really solid, he is able to wear that (exposure), not get carried away with it. A lot of learning from this year has been thrown at him, just the whole physicality of that type of rugby compared to university rugby. 

“He was in academies before so full-time rugby isn’t totally new to him but at the same time until you actually do day in day out over a full 52 weeks and experience that and try to adjust to that (you don’t know), but he is a very solid individual both on and off the pitch. He has no airs or graces about him, he is just a good diligent worker.”

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