- “This is as strong as we’ve been” – John Fletcher
- Under 18s primed to take on South Africa Schools, Wales and France
John Fletcher has guided a host of England internationals through Under 18 tours to South Africa but believes his current group has the quality to match their exalted alumni.
His latest squad – unbeaten in their four games together on route to the FIRA-AER European Championship title last season – landed in Cape Town yesterday ahead of matches against South Africa Schools, Wales and France.
Given the context that England’s age-grade programme boasts the current Under 20 world champions and that 2012/13 Test debutants Mako and Billy Vunipola, Christian Wade and Marland Yarde all toured South Africa at Under 18 level, Fletcher is clearly excited to see his young charges operate in the southern hemisphere.
“We’ve been fortunate to be strong for my five years involved but this is as strong as we’ve been,” he said. “When you have a look at the Under 20 results in the Six Nations and the Junior World Championship over the last few years, you realise that this is a strong squad.”
“All experiences the players get are good, that’s why we tour. It’s to gain the experience of playing in the southern hemisphere against teams like South Africa – what a fantastic opportunity for the players.”
Enthusiasm abounds with all the former Newcastle Falcons Academy Manager does – “there are a lot of excited 42 year olds on this trip too” – and that rubs off on the players, as scrum half Stuart Townsend explained.
“He’s one of those guys who wants us to go out there and enjoy it and play our game,” said the Exeter Chiefs 17 year old, fresh from playing a part in their JP Morgan Asset Management Premiership Sevens campaign.
Photo: Getty Images
Townsend also explained the squad take confidence from arriving as European champions – beating Wales and France on the way – but for Leeds Carnegie hooker Jack Walker, that impetus can quickly evaporate in a blitz of South African physicality if they are not prepared to meet it head on.
“Being European Champions is a great status to have after winning those games in France, but you’re only good as your next game,” said Walker, who is playing at this level a year ahead of schedule.
“Obviously South Africa will be big boys and it will be a big, physical contest. Up front we’ll have to be tough and match them there if we want to have a chance of winning the game, which we plan to do.”
Walker’s brother Chris captained England Under 18 and Under 20, visiting South Africa twice during that period. With a smile suggesting he cannot wait to embrace the abrasive nature of their rugby, Walker added that his brother gave him one clear message.
“I spoke to my brother about it and he said they’re all rugby mad out there. He emphasised that South Africa are big, physical and they take you on, that’s where we’ll have to contest the game with them.
“There’s a massive buzz around the boys, everyone has been waiting a while, we were told a month ago we were part of the squad. Everybody is ready and we can’t wait to get out there.”
As a veteran of four tours to South Africa with England U18, what does Fletcher need to do to keep the excitement of a group of fresh-faced 17 and 18 year olds under control?
Although he marries a pastoral role with his coaching duties, Fletcher says there is no need to dampen the outpouring of exhilaration generated by representing your country on tour.
“Lots of them have toured before, a fair old chunk came with us last year and lots of them go on schools tours,” he added.
“But they’re incredibly excited, and rightly so, to go away on an international tour is something to get excited about. So, to be honest, we don’t do too much to keep a lid on it. That excitement will carry them forward to the first game on Saturday.”
England Under 18 fixtures
South Africa Schoolboys – August 9, City Park Stadium, Cape Town
Wales Under 18 – August 13, Quteniqua Park, George
France Under 18 – August 17, Boland Rugby Stadium, Wellington