- RFUtv finds out what goes at at the BMW International Rugby Festival
- Player development is the focus at Wellington College for England Under 16
Representing your country at any level of rugby is a big deal, a fact borne out by the eruption of orange – and tears – that greeted the last-minute interception try and conversion from No.10 Maliq Holden, which handed Netherlands Under 17 their first ever competitive victory over France.
A collection of 320 players and coaching staff made up nine teams from around the world who competed at the BMW International Rugby Festival at Wellington College in Berkshire last week, with the emphasis on development in a variety of ways.
Whether it was a first appreciation of an elite environment; being taken out of your comfort zone; testing yourself against the best players of your age group; or seeing snow for the first time, there were new experiences everywhere.
England Under 18 fly half and Wellington College pupil Brett Herron competed in the festival last year and spoke about his memories of playing in front of a relatively big and highly committed crowd.
Herron, who missed England U18’s recent FIRA/AER European Championship victory with a knee injury, said: “It’s a great experience to play in front of quite a large crowd, it helps you get more relaxed because when you start playing you feed off the crowd.
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“A week like this helps you get used to the environment you’ll be in later on. You get used to being in camp and those sorts of things.”
Saracens Academy lock Maro Itoje, who had his first taste of representative rugby with England Under 17, believes playing international rugby at any level is “huge” because it allows personal and collective comparison to your ultimate peer group.
The 6’ 5”, 17st plus 18-year-old said: “Playing for England at this [Under 16] level is huge because it gives you the chance to see yourself against other players from across the country, as well as players from other countries. It’s cool to have that marker early on.”
A shining light of accelerated development to the pinnacle of the sport is Joe Launchbury, who made his full Test debut under Stuart Lancaster just 20 months after helping England Under 20 to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2011.
As someone the festival participants will look up to – both physically and metaphorically – the towering 21-year-old was on hand to meet the players and discuss how he’s got to where he is so quickly.
The London Wasps lock remembers his first time pulling on the England jersey, which was in the French rugby hotbed of Toulon, with immense fondness.
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“It was a great experience, pulling on the England shirt and working out what all that means, but also playing a high level of rugby while still at school. There are a lot of players here today who are doing very well for their age – doing a lot better than I was.
“I’m sure lots of the guys here are motivated enough to kick on and be the next generation.”
Each team played three games at the festival and England Under 18 Head Coach John Fletcher was on a watching brief in the hope that some of the players on show will make it into his soon-to-be-selected Under 17 group, the next stage of international representative rugby for these youngsters.
As well as coaching the U17, U18 and U19 teams, the former Newcastle Falcons academy manager is in charge of England’s talent development pathway and said this is the first year there has been an alignment in coaching principles through the schools and professional department programmes.
England Head Coach Lancaster has spoken previously about his commitment to quality coaching at all levels of the representative pyramid and Fletcher outlined how he is as good as his word.
“A good chunk of these players will go through to the 17s and 18s so it’s important that we have some form of continuous programme and that’s what we now have,” said the man who unearthed Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood and Mat Tait. “The coaches here have been excellent and we’ll meet them again in May to plan for next year. This is the first year there is a proper player development pathway at this level.
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“Stuart Lancaster has been involved in this, he came into the meeting in November and outlined that it all needs to be joined up. It’s important that there is continuous planning from when we pick them up at 15 right through 17s and 18s.”
And while the conversion rate from Wellington Festival to the next level of England teams is not absolute, the message from Launchbury was to keep trying in the face of any setbacks.
Surprisingly, given his relentless performances at the heart of England’s last nine Test matches, Launchbury was himself let go from the Harlequins Academy at 17 and cut his teeth with Worthing before re-emerging with London Wasps.
He added: “I’m sure some of them will experience some setbacks over the years but the important thing is to keep plugging away and keep trying because it’s never too late. Guys get used to it at different times and grow up at different ages both mentally and physically, and that can mean a lot.”
And the snow? Festival Director Michael Eyres explained: “The American team have got two lads from Hawaii and they had never seen snow, but they have now, so that in itself is a development.”