England’s long-term rugby future looks brighter with path to world champions

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That old proverb about reaping what you sow applies to rugby more than most sports. Neglect your bases or your future crops and sooner or later it will catch up with you. Even in England, with its greater number of players and resources, there is no escaping the consequences of a fractured player development path.

A Men’s Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003 remains one of Twickenham’s most sobering statistics, and an obvious target for those tasked with producing England’s next group of white-shirt stars. Yes, there have been two World Cup final appearances during those two decades, but of late England have developed significantly fewer World XV candidates than, say, South Africa, France, New Zealand or Ireland.

Related: Alfie Barbeary could be suspended for the start of England’s Six Nations campaign

How interesting, then, to hear an expert in this particular field insist that some potential English world champions are lurking on the horizon. They won’t be ready to fight in next month’s Six Nations, or perhaps even the 2027 World Cup, but experienced England U20 head coach Mark Mapletoft firmly believes the long-term prospects are more optimistic. “I really think young English players are as good as any in the world now,” he says. Would he be willing to bet his money on England winning the 2031 World Cup? “It certainly would be, if we do it right.”

Mapletoft, now returning for a second spell with the England Under-20s after a decade at Harlequins, has already seen enough to predict that between six and eight (and perhaps even 10) of the Under-20s this year have what it takes to be future test players. an unusually high number. He prefers not to nominate specific people at this slightly premature stage, but points to some of England’s recent results in their age groups. “If we are in such a bad situation, how come our under-18 team put 60 points on Wales, 50 points on Ireland and beat France 41-0 last year?”

So what has changed? The Mapletoft expert played alongside many of England’s 2003 World Cup champions and, in his previous spell with England age group teams between 2008 and 2010, oversaw an under-20 grand slam and two World Cup final appearances. the youth world cup. With the subsequent emergence of the “golden generation” of Owen Farrell, George Ford, Elliot Daly and others, England had the budding talent to compete with anyone. “We thought that the 2015 World Cup, even at home, would be too soon for us, but 2019 was the goal,” Mapletoft recalls. In the end we fell at the last hurdle, but we had a good team.”

However, somewhere along the way, the gushing fountain dried up. According to Mapletoft, the first worrying cracks were visible in the process, around 2013 and 2014, despite England winning another Junior U20 World Cup in 2016. “I can categorically say that the cohort of academy players we had up until those years He had the potential to become good players. Then there was a definitive fall. And if it was happening at Quins, which was probably one of the best academies, it had to be happening somewhere else. Something happened around that space. Among other things, I think the game slipped away from us financially at the club level. There was clearly a lot of uncertainty about who was doing what, where and how at Premiership level. And then, boom, suddenly Covid arrived. “I think it just set us back.”

Only recently, for example, have full-time RFU staff been rehired to help players along the bumpy road. For two or three years, managers of Premiership teams had been invited to double their teams, angering other rival clubs. “With all due respect, those clubs don’t want staff at, say, London Irish coming into contact with their players outside of competition hours,” Mapletoft suggests.

There was also a growing disconnect with the national panel of senior coaches. “We’ve already had a meeting with Steve Borthwick along the way, which is one more meeting than we’ve had before,” reports Mapletoft, who won a solitary cap for England against Argentina in 1997. Reviving the England A team, to Providing a crucial test ground between Premiership or international rugby, should be another big plus.

“As well as focusing on the 2027 World Cup in Australia, there has to be an underlying focus on 2031 in the United States,” continues the former Irish flyhalf for Gloucester, Quins and London. “The alignment between 16 and 20 years old makes no sense if it does not also exist between 20 and 24 years old. The A team is a big step in the right direction. Our job is not to produce world-class U18 or U20 teams. “Our job is to produce world-class players to play in a world-class England team.”

And it could be, despite all of English rugby’s other current off-field arguments and rising expectations across the Channel, that they get there sooner than expected. Despite heavy defeats at the weekend for Saracens and Leicester, six Premiership clubs should qualify for the Champions Cup last 16. Former England manager Stuart Lancaster, now in charge of Racing 92, is among those sensing an English youth renaissance. “The Premiership has improved. The other night I thought Northampton were excellent and Harlequins too. The unintended consequence of three teams folding last season is that the other teams have become stronger.”

So watch this space. Beneath Borthwick’s reshuffled 2024 Six Nations squad list, which will be revealed this week, things are finally moving. “There are many U-20 players here who have the physical and rugby ability to reach the highest level,” Mapletoft repeats. Will England win the 2031 World Cup? Remember where you heard it first.

Imperfect future

Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney was in Cambridge on Saturday to watch the local Championship team play the Cornish Pirates and to canvass views on how the second tier of English men’s rugby should be structured in the future. “What we need to do is come together over the next few weeks, see where the differences are and find a solution that benefits all of us,” he told BBC Radio Cornwall. But what will this nirvana ultimately look like? There is significant opposition in the Championship to the RFU’s “Tier Two” vision, which many perceive as unviable if not based solely on merit. And how is the gap in playing standards between the Premiership and Championship supposed to be significantly reduced if the central funding model remains so unequal? It might be easier to step back and ask whether English rugby union has the capacity, in the long term, to support 10 viable and thriving professional teams, let alone 20. And if not, redirect everyone’s efforts towards the establishment of a British and British organization with a higher collective profile. Irish League in place. Two properly funded 10-person divisions (or conferences), a vibrant and well-promoted semi-professional league in each individual nation plus a national U23 Cup competition to be played during the Six Nations? The simplest ideas are sometimes the best.

one to watch

The final weekend of the Champions Cup group stages usually involves multiple permutations and this year will be no exception. Eight teams (four English, three French and one Irish) have already qualified for the round of 16, but one or two big names are sweating the qualification numbers. If Saracens fail against Lyon at home, for example, they will miss out on qualifying for the knockout stage (aside from their salary cap-enforced exile) for the first time since 2011. Munster, likewise, have yet to defeat the en form Northampton at Thomond Park, while defending champions La Rochelle must beat Sale in Salford. The battle to secure the precious draw at home also promises to be fierce. There has already been high-quality rugby in this season’s tournament, but the most intense drama is yet to come.

memory lane

Until 1979 and the Indiana University rugby team, with a young Mark Cuban, third from the left in the front row. “The beauty of rugby is that it’s so irreverent that you learn not to take anyone too seriously,” the billionaire businessman said. “You learn to accept other people as they are. We had doctors, lawyers, day laborers, unemployed people and even homeless people, you know? There was always someone sleeping on someone else’s couch. They remain my best friends to this day. “We all meet every two years.”

Do you still want more?

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Stuart Lancaster confirmed that Racing 92 are interested in signing Owen Farrell, writes Robert Kitson.

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