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England’s Got Talent: How The RFU Finally Got Its Act Together

The recently announced new ‘progressive partnership’ is the latest stage in the improving working relationship between England’s governing body the RFU and its clubs. However, there has been an incredible amount of work behind the scenes to sort out the player pathways into international rugby.

Rob Andrew recently left the RFU having been its Director of Elite Rugby (with his title and job description being edited and re-written over the years) since August 2006.

Andrew had previously been a vocal advocate for the Premiership clubs having more control and say in the running of professional rugby in the country when in his role as Director of Rugby at Newcastle Falcons. It was his ability to speak for the Premiership teams that persuaded the RFU that he was the right man to begin building bridges between clubs and country.

When Andy Robinson was appointed England head coach to succeed Clive Woodward in the Autumn of 2004 – an appointment in which Andrew had no say – he took on an England side that was suffering from a huge swathe of ageing players retiring from the game. Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Dorian West, Julian White, Danny Grewcock, Neil Back, Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken, Paul Grayson, Will Greenwood and Dan Luger were just some of the names from England’s 2003 World Cup winning squad that had retired by the time Robinson lost his job in the Autumn of 2006.

However, Robinson only ever selected five players under the age of 21 in his squads: Mat Tait, Anthony Allen, Tom Varndell and Toby Flood, with only Tait and Flood making it to the 2007 World Cup.

Compare this to the Woodward era and there is a huge difference: from 1997 to 2003 Woodward capped Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Perry, Iain Balshaw, David Flatman, Mike Tindall, Ben Cohen, James Simpson-Daniel, Charlie Hodgson, Steve Borthwick, Josh Lewsey, Pat Sanderson, Ollie Smith, Michael Stephenson, Nick Duncombe, Phil Greening, Robbie Morris, Matt Stevens, Olly Barkley, Steve Hanley, Andy Long, Pat Sampson, Phil Vickery and Tom Voyce.

Just six of those players went on to feature in England’s 2003 World Cup squad, but what was obvious was Woodward was not afraid to take risks in terms of selection. If he felt someone was talented enough then they were old enough.

Now whilst it is easy to criticise Robinson for being too conservative in his selections, how many players from his time in charge did he ignore? Very few names spring to mind. A quick look at England’s Saxons squad during the 2005 Lions tour is pretty revealing. How many of those players would you count as world-class?

Andy Robinson was a victim of a national system that was failing. Clubs’ academies were not producing the talent and were not working in parallel with the RFU’s own structures. England was increasingly relying on players from a previous generation.

When Brian Ashton became head coach in 2008 after Robinson saw England lose at Twickenham to Argentina for the first time, bringing in eight players under 21 in a year and a half. Mat Tait (15), Toby Flood (7), Danny Cipriani (3), Nick Abendanon (2), Mike Brown (2), Shane Geraghty (2), Olly Morgan (2) and James Haskell (1) were all given chances to impress before the 2007 World Cup.

However, only Abendanon, Tait and Flood went on to feature in that squad. Remnants of the 2003 squad drove England to another World Cup final, including the likes of Regan, Vickery, Kay, Shaw, Corry, Moody, Worsley, Dallagio, Gomarsall, Wilkinson, Catt, Lewsey and Robinson.

When Martin Johnson was next to inherit the apparently poisoned chalice of the England job, Rob Andrew had already been busy working with the clubs to implement the new EPS system that provided Johnson with greater access to players. However, Andrew was also instrumental in improving the fortunes of the England age grade teams.

In 2008, 2009 and 2011 the U20s finished as runners up in the Junior World Championship and then in 2013, 2014 and 2016 it actually won titles as well as another final in 2015.

With John Fletcher as the U18s coach (an appointment made under Andrew in 2008), the team won European titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015, as well as finishing runners up in 2009 and 2011. They began to beat southern hemisphere opposition away from home.

This talent then filtered into the U20s, led by the likes of Nigel Redman, Mark Mapletoft, Nick Walshe and more, and suddenly the Premiership clubs could begin to look internally far more often for new players rather than spending vasts amounts of money recruiting big name international stars and foreign journeymen. It was win win for both club and country.

Australia v England - Cook Cup

With Johnson in charge he selected Ben Youngs (12), Courtney Lawes (8), Manu Tuilagi (7), Danny Care (6), Danny Cipriani (4) and Charlie Sharples (1). The first three were an integral part of England’s World Cup campaign in 2011 and Care would have been selected if not for a broken toe.

Lastly, under Stuart Lancaster he selected Owen Farrell (16), Anthony Watson (15), Manu Tuilagi (14), George Ford (10), Billy Vunipola (10), Joe Launchbury (9), Jack Nowell (8), Jonathan Joseph (4), Mako Vunipola (4), Joe Marler (3), Matt Kvesic (2), Henry Thomas (2) and Marland Yarde (2).

Suddenly there were queues of players under 21 all ready to cope with rugby at international level. Whilst England’s World Cup campaign of 2015 was a dismal failure, the number of players from that squad who will be reaching their peak in time for 2019 is extraordinary.

Australia v England

Indeed, almost all those players are now at the core of Eddie Jones’ current squad, a squad that has just won a first grand slam in thirteen years and defeated Australia the same number of times in three weeks down under than in its entire test history.

Jones is already beginning to reap the rewards of the talent being produced by the clubs and has selected u21s in Maro Itoje (7), Paul Hill (5), Anthony Watson (2) and Ellis Genge (1).

Whilst there has been limited success in terms of trophies since 2003, Rob Andrew has worked wonders to create a system that works for both club and country. Stuart Lancaster as Head of International Player Development and then England head coach continued to build a tremendous foundation for England to now succeed.

It’s been a long and arduous journey, but the RFU might have just finally got its act together.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.