England Under-20s: Strengths, weaknesses and question marks
Every year the same question follows the announcement of the England Under-20s squad: is it better or worse than last year’s group?
England are one of the few countries in the rugby world blessed with the size of player pool and resources to ensure they never truly have a fallow year, although it is certainly true that position groups can vary in strength from season to season.
Only eight players are returning this year from last season’s squad and that inevitably means it will be quite an inexperienced group. Five players have also been called up who missed out last year but were still professional players, meaning they bring some senior rugby experience to the group.
That leaves 19 first-year players involved in the 32-man elite player squad, all of whom were only leaving school around six months ago. It’s these players – the fresh faces – that RugbyPass will focus on most closely.
Three of the real position groups of strength in this England age-grade are the fly-halves, scrum-halves and full-backs. That is nothing new at fly-half where England have been very productive as a rugby nation of late, although the surplus of talent at nine and 15, particularly the former, will be welcomed at the RFU.
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Beginning at No10 and last year’s incumbent starter, Manu Vunipola, is joined by Newcastle Falcons’ Will Haydon-Wood, Gloucester’s George Barton and Sale Sharks’ Tom Curtis. If history is anything to go by, England will not look at them as exclusive fly-halves and will instead endeavour to get them involved at inside centre or full-back as well.
It’s an interesting group. Barton was on the verges of an early under-20 cap during his final year of school, Haydon-Wood was arguably the standout ten in the Academy League – something which won him an under-19 cap – and Curtis dazzled for school side Sedbergh, a group which arguably comes as close to a full-strength Premiership academy as you are likely to find in school rugby.
Of the four, Curtis is the most versatile. He has played in the centres and on the wing previously for Sale Under-18s and he could easily replicate that with the England Under-20s during the upcoming Six Nations. A possible role in the midfield, where England have lost the likes of Cameron Redpath and Ollie Lawrence, could beckon.
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Moving on to the scrum-halves and this has been a perennial problem position for England at the senior level. The talent coming through the age-grades has been noteworthy, but they have not done enough to take over starting jobs at their respective Gallagher Premiership clubs. This class could change that.
Sam Maunder is back from the 2019 season and will reunite with Vunipola at the heart of England’s attack, although he is also joined by Raffi Quirke of Sale and Jack van Poortvliet of Leicester Tigers. The latter two have managed to keep Jonny Law, also of Leicester Tigers, and Newcastle’s Callum Pascoe both out of initial EPS selection.
Whether or not Quirke and van Poortvliet can bypass players such as Faf de Klerk and Ben Youngs in the coming years is up for debate, but their talent is not. They are very gifted half-backs and it’s clear to see that competition at the position this season is higher than it has been for quite some time.
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Finally, we come to the full-backs and arguably it is the most talent-rich position that England have to call on this year. Josh Hodge returns for another crack at under-20s success and he is joined by Leicester’s Freddie Steward, Worcester Warriors’ Noah Heward and Sale’s Joe Carpenter.
That means there is currently no spot for Harlequins’ Louis Lynagh or Northampton Saints’ Tommy Freeman. England’s frequency with which they have played a traditional fly-half at the position also needs to be taken into account.
Hodge may well be deployed on the wing to make space for one of the specialist full-backs in the squad, with Steward definitely ticking the physical prototype you would look for at the position, as well as gaining plenty of senior experience with Leicester so far this season. The omission of Lynagh will be a big talking point and not a call that everyone will agree with, although it does go to show the competition and level of talent on offer this season.
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Among the position groups where England could be harder pressed this season are the centres and the props. As mentioned earlier, Redpath and Lawrence have both graduated from the under-20s and the only new face brought in has been Max Ojomoh. The Bath midfielder has plenty of ability and will bring hard-running, dynamism and a robust physical presence to the group, though his sole inclusion does hint that England will potentially also look to use a fly-half at inside centre, as Ojomoh and Connor Doherty will not be able to carry the burden on their own.
Some of the centres who have not initially been named in the EPS are Lennox Anyanwu, Chidera Obonna, Isaac Marsh and Phil Cokanasiga, so there are gifted options there should England decide to go down a more centre-centric midfield.
As for the props, their position is not highlighted due to a lack of talent, simply due to a lack of experience. Loosehead Sam Crean is a second-year player, although he was not involved in the under-20s last year, while James Whitcombe, Harvey Beaton and Luke Green are all in their first years of professional rugby.
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In the front row, that arguably makes a bigger difference than it does at any other position. They will come up against players at times this year that have a physical edge over them and that will test them. That could be perfect for their developments in the longer term, although it’s worth noting that England may not have everything go their way up front over the next six months.
Some other interesting omissions through the squad include hooker Sam Riley (Harlequins), lock Chunya Munga (London Irish), back rows Izaiha Moore-Aiono and Fin Rossiter (both London Irish), wings Joe Browning (Leicester) and Jack Bates (Bristol Bears), and utility back Harry Barlow (Harlequins), with Barlow now potentially set to join up with Wales.
It’s always a large talent pool to pick from and there are always tough decisions to be made, although this season seems to boast more contentious calls than ever before. Perhaps that is due to a larger pool of international age-grade-calibre players this year or potentially just a very distinct playing style that the coaching staff is looking to implement over the coming months.
The group get their under-20s Six Nations campaign underway against France in Grenoble on February 1. With Les Bleus’ age-grade side arguably having surpassed England as the premier pathway in world rugby over the last couple of seasons, it should be a compelling test of this new group.
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