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Best junior programme in world rugby – Fletcher

30 August 2011

  • John Fletcher reflects on England U18's summer tour
  • Regional academies are doing a fantastic job – Fletcher
England U18

Photo: Getty Images

Like most of the rugby world, John Fletcher is looking forward to the start of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in just 10 days’ time. But unlike most of his countrymen, it is the next event in 2015 that excites him most.  

“It’s a bold statement but I believe we have the best national junior programme in world rugby,” said the England U18 coach.

Fletcher and his 26-man squad flew home their three-match tour of Australia, having recorded three victories against their southern hemisphere compatriots. 

And whilst the scorelines were impressive (England defeated Australia Academy U19 19-8 before overcoming Australia A Schools 27-0 and Australia Schools 46-19), it is the performances that have most satisfied Fletcher who believes that a number will be challenging for honours come the next RWC in four years’ time.

“It was a typical Under 18 performance,” he said of Sunday’s 46-19 win over Australia Schools. “The ball moves through lots of phases, there is lots of ambition and that causes lots of problems for oppositions.

England U18 flanker Matt Hankin

Photo: Getty Images

“In that respect, the Under 18s, Under 20s and even England Saxons are well aligned. It’s no accident, it’s a definite plan and one that is well supported by Stuart Lancaster and Rob Andrew.”

But Fletcher is quick to point out that success is also heavily reliant on the work of that goes into developing the players outside of England duty.

“Our 14 regional academies are doing a fantastic job,” he says, also paying tribute to the work of the schools and colleges.  “It’s a joined up approach, we are all working together to identify the better players and make sure they become as good as they can be.”

The best evidence that the system  is working will come when England contest – and host - the next RWC.  “I believe come 2015 we’ll see a lot of players come up through the Under 18s, they’ll definitely add something.  There is no doubt that this crop of youngsters are better than the current England squad were at the same age – and so they should be.

The England U18 pack get ready to srcum

Photo: Getty Images

“Our job is to provide Martin Johnson and the senior England coaches with as many different players as possible who are capable of playing in many different ways.”

And the skills of Fletcher’s current charges were on display for all to see. “Our victories are proof that we are better than the southern hemisphere teams of this age when it comes to moving the ball around and a lot of our tries have come because of that.”

But perhaps the defining features of the squad’s performances has been the capability up front.  “It’s not just about size,” explained forwards coach Peter Walton. 

“They are all good rugby players and they are all capable of catching, passing and carrying.  We have worked hard on our ball skills and that’s been a big factor in our success.  They are becoming more confident in the decisions they make with ball in hand. They are showing they are guys who can really play rugby.”

England U18 full back Jack Nowell

Photo: Getty Images

Further indication of the strength in depth that Fletcher and his fellow National Academy coaches are developing is the fact that of the 14 forwards Walton selected to tour, only four have any experience of international rugby, having represented England at under 16 level.

 “Our job is to find players for the future, we’ve been actively out there looking for them, it’s not just about those who come up through the system.

“Some of them might not be quite there yet but they’re well on the way,” he added.  “To be without players of the calibre of Luke Cowan-Dickie (Truro College and Exeter Chiefs prop) and Jack Clifford (the RGS Guildford and Harlequins No. 8) through injury and still perform as we did yesterday was outstanding.” 

England U18 celebrate their win in Australia

Photo: RFU Archive

Another such example is skipper Dominic Barrow. So impressive was the Prince Henry’s Grammar & Leeds Carnegie lock that the coaches voted him player of the tour. “Dom has a big future in the game,” said Walton. “He’s been outstanding in all three games.”

With their physicality and dominance of the England pack drawing regular ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowds, it seems fitting that a tight forward takes this honour but behind the scenes, Walton believes there is another who deserves credit. 

“Two years ago when Australia toured England, they dominated us in the scrum,” admits Walton.  “But scrum coach Ian Peel has been on board since then (working with all the representative teams through to under 20s) and things have really improved. And that’s what our performances have been built on."