Having won two Junior World Championships in 2013 and 2014, finished as runners-up in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2015, and won the Six Nations Championship in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015, England U-20s has been one of the best age grade sides in the world for some time.
But this season they have already lost two games to Scotland and Ireland respectively and are in danger of having their worst tournament for quite some time.
Since the inception of U-20s sides in 2009, to replace the old U-19 and U-21 representative sides, the likes of Rob Andrew, the Director of Elite Rugby, and Stuart Lancaster – who was the RFU’s Head of Elite Development – helped to build winning sides and a conveyor belt of talent that was able to belie the peaks and troughs of player development through U-18s to U-20s. Inevitably, one year will see a number of older players who have been in the U-20s for a season already, whereas another may see a whole raft of younger starlets without that experience.
Premiership coaches like Mark Mapletoft (now of Harlequins), Nick Walshe (Gloucester’s current backs and attack coach) made their names as coaches of successful U-20s sides and the age grade teams provide opportunities for former players to develop into top club and, potentially, international coaches. Given the dearth of English candidates for the England head coach job after Lancaster resigned, this is something that needs to continue to flourish.
Yet current coach Jon Callard – the RFU’s national performance academy manager and international performance coach – has overseen an U-20s team that currently lie in fourth in the Six Nations Championships having been humbled 24-6 by Scotland at Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld. England failed to bounce back against a similarly struggling Ireland side, who had previously lost 35-24 to Wales before going down 34-13 to France.
What is even more shocking is that England were at one point leading Ireland 20-6 before a second half comeback saw Ireland stun England to win 26-20. Such performances and such results from a side that likes to consider itself up there with the Baby Blacks and Baby Boks are just not good enough.
One also has to question the suitability of Callard for the role as well when you take into account his previous coaching stints with England. When in charge of England’s second string, the Saxons, Callard led England to a 35-0 loss to Scotland A at Galashiels back in 2012. The Saxons did earn some notable victories against the Irish Wolfhounds in 2012 and 2013, but 2014 saw England lose at home to Ireland’s A side 8-14.
It could be argued that the young raft of players coming through now is simply not as good as those previously, but when you consider the likes of Premiership starters Harry Mallinder and Theo Brophy-Clews and Yorkshire Carnegie stalwart Jack Walker are part of the squad, there is really no acceptable excuse.
It is probably not particularly shocking news then that the RFU announced two days ago that former Nottingham coach Martin Haag would replace Callard as U-20s coach at the end of the current Six Nations campaign. It can only be hoped that he can revive England’s fortunes during the Junior World Championship in Manchester in June.
England has established itself as one of the best producers of young talent at U-20s level and it must resume that mantle if the age grade teams are to continue to provide England head coach Eddie Jones with the young talent he needs to continue to develop his test side.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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