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The Skivington message for England A fans after eight-year absence

By Liam Heagney
England A head coach George Skivington (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

George Skivington has issued a message to England A supporters ahead of their first fixture at that level in eight years. Not since the 2016 Saxons tour to South Africa have the English fielded a team at that level beneath their Test side.

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The pandemic played spoilsport on the morning of its original intended return, with positive virus tests resulting in the cancellation of a June 2021 match versus Scotland A at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

Three years down the track, however, all is ready for England A ahead of Sunday’s clash in Leicester with Portugal, the recent Rugby World Cup surprise packet.

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What can fans expect from an England team that only came together for the first time at Loughborough University on Tuesday and had the likes of skipper Charlie Ewels miss that day’s training as they hadn’t yet been released from Steve Borthwick’s senior squad at Pennyhill?

“My message is that it’s going to be really exciting,” reckoned head coach Skivington when asked by RugbyPass to set the scene for a match that will be streamed live on England rugby’s YouTube and Facebook channels.

“Some of the talent and the individual skills within this squad are unbelievable. We’re not going to be perfect, that’s for sure, but with it not being perfect you are going to see some young lads do some really good stuff and you are going to see them get tested with making a few errors and how they recover.

“Portugal are a good team and they will have moments within this game and they will bring an exciting brand of rugby but to see the future of English talent a good few years ahead before they become first team if you like is a really exciting prospect.

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“It used to be a really strong programme, as we all know, and those games were great to be a part of. The boys are buzzing and I have no doubt they will put on a good display.”

The 41-year-old Skivington knows from first-hand experience as a player how useful A-level international rugby can be. He didn’t go on and become an England Test player, but numerous teammates made that step before the grade was shelved following the two-game trip to South Africa in 2016.

“I was an aspiring (player) trying to get into the first team, but I was also playing good club rugby. Minimum it [A level] gives an opportunity to challenge yourself in a different environment. Same as this week, you go somewhere different, different group, different coaches.

“See if you can take your leadership skills and your lineout, whatever it is that is your area, and see if you can take it somewhere else, lead a different group and win in a different environment under a different pressure in a quicker timescale.

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“We probably had a little bit more time back in those days because it was a proper programme over the summer or during the Six Nations, but the same principle – get out of your comfort zone, spend time with different people, sit with different people, enjoy the privilege of being a professional rugby player and the opportunity to go somewhere different, try something different knowing that you will be going back to your club at some point. I loved it, it was a great experience.”

RFU performance director Conor O’Shea last week spoke about his plans to annually schedule three to four A-level games. Having gotten a taste of international coaching this week, would regularly coaching England A be something of interest to Skivington, the Gloucester boss?

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“I have loved this week. All the staff have come in from different places and our challenge is getting as aligned as much as the players do but I think we have had a really good week. It has been really enjoyable.

“We have worked hard, we have spent some quality time together and we will all have learned from each other no doubt. Look, what happens going forward I don’t know but I will always be privileged to do anything with the English rose on it and I’d welcome any challenge like that along the way.”

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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