While many people are focusing on England’s upcoming June Tests in Australia and the Saxons’ Tour of South Africa, it is also time to look at the international stars of the future in the World Rugby U20 Championship. The England boys had a poor 6 Nations, finishing in 5th place with a win in Italy their only victory in the campaign. At this year’s tournament, being hosted in Manchester, the Italians were England’s first opponents ahead of future group fixtures against Australia and Scotland. After a tense 1st half, the hosts ran away with the game in the 2nd half to win 48-10 and top the group after Round 1.
Below are a few takeaways from last night’s game:
- Though England ran away with it after half time, the 1st half was a tight affair, with both teams making errors and struggling to take advantage of any areas of dominance. With the squad having only assembled a week previously, I think this poor start was more due to players having to gel together so should not be too much of a worry. 4 of the starting XV were making their débuts at this level (3 of those in the back line) and a further 2 players came off the bench for their 1st U20s appearances, so it will take a bit of time for players to get used to unfamiliar combinations and tactics to what they are used at their clubs. In this regard, it is very lucky that Italy were the first opponents as, being the weakest team in the group, this gave England the chance to still win comfortably whilst not playing the best rugby. However, England must play with much more accuracy in their remaining matches to give themselves the best chance of victory.
- What a season it has been for Harry Mallinder! He’s had a great season with Northampton and looked very impressive on his U20s début. With team captain Jack Walker on the bench, Mallinder was picked to captain the side last night, but if he felt any extra pressure, he certainly didn’t show it, even after the early substitution of fly half Theo Brophy-Clews. Much of England’s best play involved Mallinder, most notably his inch-perfect kick for Sam Aspland-Robinson’s try. He also nailed 5 kicks off the tee, including a beautiful touchline conversion, and was rightly named man of the match. If he continues to play like that I would be very surprised if he is not in the running for the honour of being named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year. As was mentioned in the commentary last night, a number of players have graduated from the U20s to the senior England team in recent years, including Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and former U20s captains Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje. With such a wide variety of skills, if Mallinder can continue to build on this season, I doubt it will be long until he is getting capped at senior international level and I look forward to seeing him impress over the next few years (though I’d appreciate it if he has poor games against Gloucester).
- England’s line-out performance was poor for much of the match. Especially in the 1st half, a number of line-outs were either turned over or were inaccurate, hampering the team’s ability to get anything going off the first phase and almost gifting Italy a try. Even England’s second try only came about as a result of Brophy-Clews reacting quickly to an overthrow in the Italian 22, though this did lead to him going off injured. My hope is that this was just down to limited time training together, so it was good to see Martin Haag keeping faith in starting hooker Jack Singleton until late in the 2nd half, by which point the lineout appeared to be functioning much better. The set piece is such an important area of the international game, so I’m sure there will be work done to make sure this doesn’t happen again in later matches.
- Though Engalnd’s line-out may have struggled for much of the match, the scrum was much less of an issue. Although the English pack weighed less than the Italians, they held their own in the early stages and by the end of the match had almost complete dominance, even winning a penalty try from a 5 metre scrum. Once the lineout began to function better, this strength was also seen in the power of the English driving maul, which led to Singleton’s try.
- As in every tournament, strength in depth is vital. England picked up a number of injuries during this match, hopefully none of them serious. It shows the strength in this squad that their captain was able to be left on the bench for the majority of the game. Zach Mercer has a great impact on the game after coming off the bench and I thought that substitute scrum half Harry Randall looked lively on his début as was unfortunate not to score a try of his own just before the penalty try. Not only is this good to see for the team in this tournament, but with many of these players being available for the next couple of seasons, it bodes well for the future prospects of the U20s team, and also the senior team in the future.
For an opening match, I think there was much for the coaching staff and fans to be happy about. While it must be taken into account that Italy are not at the same level as England, this was a good match to prepare for the tougher tests to come. Next up is Scotland on Saturday, a match that could decide who tops the group. Good luck boys…