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What would leave Mark Mapletoft 'pretty devastated as a coach'

By Liam Heagney
England U20 players sing their national anthem in Tbilisi earlier this month. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

England begin their World Rugby U20 Championship campaign on Saturday with a clash versus Argentina and age-grade boss Mark Mapletoft has revealed the one thing that would leave him “pretty devastated as a coach”.

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Having clinched the Six Nations title with a spectacular win away to France in Pau last March, the English have been drawn in a pool in Cape Town that also includes Fiji and the host country South Africa.

The travelled to the southern hemisphere last weekend following a drawn two-Test series away to Georgia in Tbilisi and have since settled into the Mother City hotel base they are intriguingly sharing with South Africa, whom they will play in round three on July 9.

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England placed fourth at the tournament last year, losing the bronze final to the South Africans, and amid an expectation that they can improve on that 2023 outcome, Mapletoft issued this message to English fans ahead of Saturday’s kick-off: “Look, we really value the support,” he told RugbyPass.

“We appreciate it is a long way from home and there probably aren’t going to be many travelling out here other than close family and friends. If there are some ex-pats living out here, great.

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“We want to be successful, we want the lads to be able to perform, we want it to be a development space where the players can feel comfortable trying things, to not be inhibited by fear of not succeeding.

“I’d be pretty devastated as a coach if I ever felt that players were in that space, so we want the players to come out here, we want them to express themselves, be brave, be excited by the opportunity and hopefully use it as a springboard to future success in their careers.”

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Mapletoft expressed delight that the players have taken more ownership of standards on the training ground in the hope that it follows through to a more complete performance in the pitch in matches.

“In the ultimate test the players are on the field and have to make decisions themselves,” he explained. “If your training sessions or the meetings are always player-led then the reality is when push comes to shove, when the pressure comes on, the players are going to be found wanting.

“So it’s hugely important that Finn and his leadership group are able to understand within the game what is going on, the momentum, are we on top, how do we keep pushing, how do we really hammer that home?

“But at the same time no team is every on top for the full 80 minutes and we hopefully have got mechanisms in place where we can recognise that and adjust accordingly. That was something we learned in a painful way last year in the last 20, 25 minutes in the semi-final against France.

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“It’s something we worked incredible hard at through the course of the Six Nations, through our training camps. Look, it won’t always be perfect and it won’t always work but we certainly put those processes in place where the players are able to drive things a little bit more themselves, recognise those key moments and hopefully act accordingly.”

While 18 of the opening round match day 23 are veterans of the recent Six Nations, with seven part of the 2023 England squad at the 2023 U20 Championship in Cape Town, Mapletoft has included five new caps to face Argentina.

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Winger Jack Bracken and scrum-half Ollie Allan have been handed starts in the team skippered by Finn Carnduff, with rookies Cam Miell, Lucas Friday and and Ben Coen named on the bench.

Explaining his round one selection, the coach said: “It’s been a while since we last played a proper competitive game against France. We have had warn-up matches in between against Coventry, the two games in Georgia which were great learning experiences.

“Look, we lost a couple of players through those games, which is disappointing, but it’s part and parcel of rugby. It has presented opportunities for people to step up and step in.

“We’d like to think we have picked a competitive squad for the weekend for the first game, while recognising we have got five games coming thick and fast and we have got to pick according to the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.

“We want to get off to a positive start. We play again on Thursday so it’s important we are able to pick the team we think is best for this particular game, hopefully put a good performance and then quickly move on.”

  • Click here to sign up to RugbyPass TV for free live World Rugby U20s Championship matches from Saturday, June 29

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finn 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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