Wasps Academy Manger Jonathan Pendlebury is set to be named the new England U18 Head Coach and England Pathway coach.
Pendlebury will join the RFU in mid January ahead of the U18 Six Nations Festival and the other U18 fixtures prior to that Easter competition.
The former Rotherham Titans, Gloucester, and Leeds Carnegie lock has great experience with young players, having previously been the Academy Manager at Yorkshire (Leeds) Carnegie before spending the last two and a half years in charge at the Wasps Academy.
He joins after a tumultuous few years for the RFU age-grade sides, a messy period that all began when the coaching triumvirate of John Fletcher, Peter Walton, and Russell Earnshaw were all ushered out in June 2018.
That trio were, and are, regarded as up there with the very best in the world when it came to age-grade coaching and development, full of innovative ideas and a fun based approach to development that saw players from 1-15 encouraged to develop their skillsets across the board. Be under no illusions, when people are praising the skills of England’s forwards those three’s fingerprints are all over that.
25 of England’s current squad were coached by Fletcher at some point, when he, Walton, and Earnshaw left the RFU the tributes from players came flooding in, not least from Anthony Watson, who said:
“Sad to see two unbelievable coaches and better blokes in Fletch and Walts moved on. Both had an immeasurable influence on my career at that age and beyond. No matter where they end up I have no doubt they’ll have as much success there as they did at U18 level.”
According to The Times they were sacked by Dean Ryan, Head of International Player Development for England at the time, because he believed the England pathway system was fractured and Fletcher and Walton did not agree with his vision for the future of the pathway, Earnshaw was soon after made redundant having shown solidarity with Fletcher and Walton. Ryan had joined the RFU in August 2016, in May of 2019, and less than a year after sacking arguably the most highly rated pathway coaches in the world, he left to take up a position in charge at the Dragons.
Two months after that the England U20 Head Coach, and one of the key pathway coaches, Steve Bates, was also sacked. The latest England U20 coach to feel the axe, Dean Ryan had sacked Martin Haag previously after he had won the World Rugby U20 Championships, the likes of Rick Shuttleworth and other backroom staff had also been let go by the then Head of International Player Development. Then in August of this year Jim Mallinder, who was now running the age-grade sides, left to take up a senior role with the Scottish Rugby Union.
In a little over a year then, England’s pathway coaching roster has been absolutely torn apart. Walton is now in charge at Gloucester’s Academy, Fletcher and Earnshaw set up the Magic Academy, and are working with schools, clubs, and academies across the country and across a range of sports with lots of other non-Government bodies. Their ideas being used and promoted by, have a guess, the RFU.
The task ahead of Pendlebury then is a huge one. For his sake, and that of all of the promising young players across the country, the hope has to be that his appointment ushers in an era of stability and a clear idea of what the ‘pathway’ looks like. He will at least have some stability around him in the form of Don Barrell, who was appointed Head of Regional Academies in July 2017 and remains in the role to this day.
Pendlebury will also be joining the RFU at a similar time to another big appointment, Italy Head Coach Conor O’Shea. The former Harlequins Director of Rugby, and Ireland international, has not had his role within the RFU clearly defined yet publically, however with Eddie Jones set to remain as head coach for two years after the World Cup and O’Shea having held the position of Director of the National Academy at the RFU from 2005 to 2008, it would not be a surprise if he were to have some form of involvement in the player pathway.
Without doubt though, the opportunity for Pendlebury is immense. England have greater resources and player numbers than any nation on earth. The players arriving into the pathway now are so highly skilled and eager to learn thanks to the foundations being laid in clubs and schools across the country that we are almost certain to see some of the most exciting and innovative players we ever have coming through, his pleasure will be helping to guide those players and helping to shape the future of English rugby.
RFU’s Pathway Coaching Timeline
2005-2008 – Conor O’Shea Director of the National Academy
2008 – John Fletcher and Peter Walton join the RFU
August 2016 – Dean Ryan joins as Head of International Player Development
July 2017 – Don Barrell appointed Head of Regional Academies
June 2018 – Fletcher, Walton, Russell Earnshaw (all U18/pathway) sacked/left
May 2019 – Ryan leave for Dragons
July 2019 – Steve Bates (U20/pathway) left
August 2019 – Jim Mallinder (pathway) left for Scotland
October 2019 – Jonathan Pendlebury appointed England Pathway Coach and England U18 Head Coach, from Wasps Academy Manager, starts mid-Jan 2020
Octover 2019 – Conor O’Shea to England – “senior position”, start date TBC