The 2017 World Rugby U20 Championships kick off tomorrow, with England looking to retain their title, beginning with a game against Samoa at 10am.
England have won three of the last four editions of the U20 World Championships and have been by far the most consistent team, they have faced a different side in each and every final, Wales in 2013, South Africa in 2014, New Zealand in 2015 (their only defeat at global U20 level in four years), and Ireland last year.
New Zealand were once the dominant force at U20 level, winning the first four editions of the U20 competition from 2008-2011 before South Africa finally broke their grip on it by beating them in the final in 2012.
Since then though it is England, not the Baby Blacks, who have become the dominant global force at U20 level, and it should come as no surprise. With superior playing numbers to every other nation, England should be on top at a level where for many side even finding an entire fifteen of players at the required standard can be a struggle, let alone selecting and balancing an entire squad with plenty of quality left to select from.
It was not always like that though, the numbers were always there for England but only after the impressive foundations were laid by Stuart Lancaster, and the fantastic work with the junior age-groups from coaching guru John Fletcher, as well as the likes of Peter Walton and Russell Earnshaw to name just a few, has the playing numbers started to marry with both success at U20 level but also with the consistent development of top quality international players.
With this in mind while looking back at these past four years ahead of tomorrow’s kick off, we thought we would pick a fifteen from those four sides, of whom three lifted the biggest prize in age-grade rugby, just to demonstrate the quality of those coming through.
Looking through the fifteen there are four British and Irish Lions (including one Welshman), seven further full England internationals, an Aviva Premiership winner, an England Saxon, a player that faced the Barbarians on Sunday in a non-cap international, and another player that surely would have were it not for injury.
It is quite an astonishing return given that all of those players have come through in just one Lions cycle, in 2013, when England lifted their first U20 title, the Lions were down in Australia.
An XV of England U20 Internationals 2013-2016:
1 Ellis Genge (England cap)
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (England cap)
3 Paul Hill (England cap)
4 Maro Itoje (Lion & England cap)
5 Charlie Ewels (England cap)
6 Ross Moriarty (Lion & Wales cap)
7 Jack Clifford (England cap)
8 James Chisholm (England Saxons cap)
9 Stuart Townsend (Started Aviva Premiership final win for Exeter Chiefs)
10 Henry Slade (England cap)
11 Nathan Earle (England app v Barbarians)
12 Ollie Devoto (England cap)
13 Joe Marchant (Uncapped – injured)
14 Jack Nowell (Lions & England cap)
15 Anthony Watson (Lions & England cap)
Maro Itoje is probably the biggest star to come out of that period, he captained the side that won in 2014 where he played alongside Ross Moriarty, now with Wales, who will join him on the Lions tour in New Zealand.
Also joining them in New Zealand are Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson, who played with Moriarty in the 2013 victory over Wales. Interestingly at that point in their careers it was Nowell at full back with Watson on the wing, where now many would point to Nowell as the more out and out winger, with Watson a candidate to take over from Mike Brown as the long term England full back.
Conventional wisdom is that it takes forwards longer to develop than backs, but in the case of these England U20 sides it seems that the forwards have been the ones to rise through the ranks most quickly.
Ellis Genge, part of the 2015 set up, was named the Land Rover Discovery of the Season for the Aviva Premiership this year and is certainly part of Eddie Jones’ long term plans, so to his 2015 teammate and 2016 winner, Paul Hill.
Luke Cowan-Dickie’s move from loosehead to hooker began at U20 level, and is something few refer to when talking about his occasionally wayward lineouts, but once he has got that skill nailed down, he will surely join Jamie George in piling the pressure on incumbent England hooker Dylan Hartley.
Charlie Ewels appears to be the next cab off the rank in the most competitive position in England, the second row, indeed perhaps his biggest competition in that regard may be one of this year’s crop of U20s, Nick Isiekwe, who is missing the U20 World Championships to tour Argentina with the senior side.
Jack Clifford captained the 2013 side and has a fair few England caps to his name now, although injury has curtailed his progress a little. His Harlequins teammate James Chisholm is one of just three players in this XV without a cap, but with a World U20 Player of the Year award to his name, plus this year’s Harlequins player of the season award, full international honours are surely on the way for the former Brighton College pupil.
Stuart Townsend’s U20 World Championship career was blighted by injury, but his quality has shone through this year as he rose rapidly from the Cornish Pirates bench to the Exeter Chiefs starting XV in the Aviva Premiership final. Perhaps his biggest challenge will be holding off the challenge of Jack Maunder at Exeter, another who could be at this year’s U20 Championships but is instead with England’s senior side in Argentina.
Henry Slade’s qualities are well known, he stepped out of George Ford’s shadow in 2013 (Ford was still eligible for the U20s but was deemed so good by then as for it to be a waste of time for him to take part) having played behind him in 2012, and will now be setting his sights on doing the same at senior level, if he can snatch the 10 shirt at his club from Gareth Steenson.
Ollie Devoto was actually on the bench in that 2013 final, with Slade at 10 and his other Exeter Chiefs teammate, Sam Hill, at inside centre. Devoto has usurped Hill at club level for that shirt now though, and with a cap to his name and an England tour to Argentina coming, he might just fancy more. Joe Marchant alongside him in this XV would also have been hoping for caps on that tour but injury has cost him, Eddie Jones certainly rates him though, having fast-tracked him to the senior squad following last year’s U20 Championships.
Joining Nowell and Watson in this fictional back three in Nathan Earle, who was in excellent form for England against the Barbarians in a try-scoring first appearance, where he was selected ahead of full international Marland Yarde.
The point is though that in those four years there is a fifteen that could be selected that could quite happily compete at full international level, and that, ultimately, is the point of the U20s.
The question on the lips now is who from the 2017 crop could join this outstanding list of players in the years to come?
Zach Mercer certainly seems a possibility, so too the likes of Ted Hill, Marcus Street, and Ben Earl, not to mention Jack Maunder, Nick Isiekwe, Joe Cokanasiga, and the Curry twins who are missing the tournament to join Eddie Jones and his senior squad in Argentina.
Let us known who you think could join these outstanding players from 2013-2016 from this year’s squad on Twitter (@FifteenRugbyXV) Instagram (@fifteenrugbyxv) or Facebook (facebook.com/FifteenRugby) – there’s certainly plenty of talent to choose from!