The concept of selecting apprentices is nothing new in international rugby, although it is also fair to say that it is something which has come back en vogue in the northern hemisphere following the hiring of Eddie Jones as England head coach.
In 2017, Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith and Bath No8 Zach Mercer were included as apprentices in a senior England squad before wing Gabriel Ibitoye and back row Sam Moore took up similar roles in 2018.
The bug is spreading, too, as new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has named four ‘development players’ in his Guinness Six Nations squad with Leinster trio Ryan Baird, Harry Byrne and Will Connors, along with Ulster wing Robert Baloucoune, all making the cut.
England are the only Six Nations side yet to name their squad, with Jones set to confirm his selection on Monday. With the group that made it to the World Cup final relatively young and very few players of an age that would preclude them from the 2023 tournament, Jones is not expected to make dramatic changes to his side.
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Northampton Saints full-back George Furbank is in the conversation, as are Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt and Saracens’ Ben Spencer, although all three are established senior players and would not qualify as apprentices. With all three having significant club responsibilities, their inclusion as apprentices would be wasteful and do nothing to enhance club-country relations.
That said, there are a lot of suitable candidates for apprenticeships out there, players with the talent and natural ability to one day be England regulars, as well as a lack of opportunities at the senior level at their current club so as not to make the experience an ineffective use of their time.
One such player would be Leicester Tigers’ Freddie Steward, with the full-back already earning sporadic appearances at the senior level for the East Midlands club, despite only leaving school last summer.
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At 6ft 5ins, Steward has the perfect frame to be the sort of rangy and aerially adept full-back that is coveted in the modern game, while his long stride length allows him to eat up ground quickly and turn half-breaks into big gains. A booming boot, comfortable with the ball in hand and able to deliver accurate and physical tackles as the last line of defence, the 19-year-old is certainly one to keep an eye on.
Mike Brown’s time with England looks to be over, Alex Goode has never been a favourite of Jones and though Furbank is playing well, the competition to Elliot Daly seems to be few and far between, particularly with Jones rarely opting to use Anthony Watson or Jack Nowell in that role. A glimpse into this environment could be very fruitful for Steward.
Another player in a similar boat to Steward is Sale Sharks’ Raffi Quirke. If he continues developing, the scrum-half is faced with potential opportunity at the senior international level where competition, at least in Jones’ eyes, is slim for incumbent Ben Youngs.
We would be generous if we said the Welsh enjoy a wholly cordial rivalry with their rivals over the border, but they have in truth much to thank their England neighbours for this week, writes @OwainJTJoneshttps://t.co/4I2rN9XYye
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At 32 years of age, Willi Heinz is unlikely to be in the mix at the next World Cup, leaving Ben Spencer, Dan Robson and Jack Maunder as the only realistic options that Jones has experimented with during his tenure. Robson has never really been given a shot and Maunder has fallen away, at least in England terms, since bursting onto the scene as a 20-year-old, leaving Spencer as the likely frontrunner.
Jones would not have a player ready for international rugby in Quirke, although he would have a gifted nine whose passing, ability to attack the fringes, tempo and game management all stack up very nicely for a player so fresh out of school. An understanding of the international environment and what is expected of players at that level would be beneficial for Quirke, especially with limited chances to appear for Sale during the international window.
The third and final apprentice we would put forward is London Irish’s Chunya Munga, with the lock having been a head-scratching omission from the England under-20s side that was named recently. Lock is rarely talked about as a position of change or renewal for England and understandably so given the quartet of Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, although by the end of February Lawes will be 31 and Kruis will be 30.
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The Scotlands coach has hit out at the scheduling of Saracens’ Gallagher Premiership clash with Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop just six days before the Scots kick-off their championships against Ireland in Dublin on February 1.
Throw into the mix that the latter is rumoured to be off to Japan and thus become ineligible for England selection, it wouldn’t hurt to have one or two more irons in the fire. Munga is a skilful lineout forward for his age, has prototypical size for the position and is developing into a player who can be a force in the loose as well as at the set-piece.
The under-20s are carrying just two out-and-out locks in George Martin and Hugh Tizard, instead opting for back row who can also play the position, such as Richard Capstick. The chance to work with Steve Borthwick and Matt Proudfoot would be valuable to Munga, who could become a very important player for Irish in the coming seasons.
Other names worthy of mention include Alfie Barbeary, Max Ojomoh and Josh Gillespie. Barbeary has been dealing with injury issues of late and consistent games in the under-20 Six Nations may be more important for the hooker as he bids to return to full fitness, as he will be looking to make an impact with the Wasps senior side in the second half of the season.
'His unchallenged message is that his squad is dynamic, powerful and aggressive with a lot of skill and speed, a nice soundbite if rah-rah soundbites are your thing twelve-and-a-half weeks on from World Cup crucifixion by the All Blacks,' writes @heagneyl
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 16, 2020
Centre Ojomoh is arguably too valuable to the under-20s to let him out of camp, with new under-20s head coach Alan Dickens having selected plenty of fly-halves and full-backs but very few genuine ball-carrying centres. If Ojomoh were removed from the squad, Sale’s Connor Doherty would be the only midfielder of that type in the age-grade side.
Finally, we come to versatile Northampton back Gillespie, who sits behind Ollie Sleightholme in both the Saints and England under-20s pecking orders, although he boasts an impressively high ceiling wherever in the backline that may ultimately see him positioned. With England’s wing options falling into a largely favourable age profile, his introduction into that environment is arguably not as vital as those of Steward, Quirke and Munga, though.
The concept of apprentices doesn’t sit well with everyone, although with this trio unlikely to be involved in senior rugby at their club sides over the Six Nations period, time in a testing and new environment should only be a positive move for them.
For Steward, Quirke and Munga, this could be a big step on their pathways to achieving as much as they possibly can in professional rugby.
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