England coaches Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt have confirmed that they are considering several young players, stretching as far as those currently in the Under-20 squad, for England’s tour to New Zealand in June. With their resources set to be stretched thanks to several players’ likely participation in the Aviva Premiership final, Rowntree insists England will not hesitate to include any young players they deem ready.
“We’re looking at a big pool of players, right down to the Under-20s,” said England’s forwards coach. “We’re looking to the future and planning for after the World Cup. What will be will be – they’re not great cards that we’ve been dealt, but we’ll get on with it.”
England have not been afraid in recent times to fast-track youth into the squad if it is deemed that they are good enough to compete for a place. Bath’s Anthony Watson and Exeter’s Jack Nowell were the most recent to reap these benefits, following their ascension to the senior squad not long after leaving the Under-20s set up.
“One thing we’ve shown in the last couple of years is that we’ll throw guys in if we feel they’re good enough, regardless of age,” pointed out Rowntree. “It’s a major, major plus for us, this. We can have a look at a good group of players. Over the last four months the group has expanded because people have come in and taken their chance.”
One man many have been calling for to be included in this ‘expanded group’ is Steffon Armitage, particularly after his virtuoso display for Toulon in their Heineken Cup win over Leinster. But, with a wry smile at the topic surfacing again, Rowntree is adamant that they will continue to honour the foreign-based players selection rule.
“Our stance is quite clear – we want to promote those guys playing in England for obvious reasons. Whilst they are playing well, we’re quite content with that. It’s his decision completely. I’m comfortable with our stance on the matter.”
So Armitage will certainly miss out on the summer tour, and another worrying certainty is that a lot of these players will have played a huge amount of top level rugby by the time the planes jet off to New Zealand. With Saracens in the Heineken Cup semi-finals and Northampton, Bath, Harlequins and Wasps all featuring in the Amlin equivalent, there is a danger the players could be a bit burnt out. Mike Catt, however, isn’t worried.
“The more these guys, especially the younger players like Billy Vunipola, can be exposed to those big-game scenarios – the next step before international rugby – the better and quicker they’ll develop as rugby players.
“We want English clubs to be successful and Saracens have done that. Billy has been out for six or seven weeks with his ankle, so it’s great that he can get back into the international frame by playing in those big games.”
There is no tougher place to win in international rugby than New Zealand – England themselves haven’t triumphed there since 2003, and it just so happens that both Rowntree and Catt were part of that side. So there are no men better-placed than these two in instruct the players in how to get one over the world’s top-ranked team.
Rowntree says that where once New Zealand were streets ahead in their attacking play, the field is now more levelled. This will be key if England are to have any chance of winning on Kiwi soil.
“We’ve shown significant strides in how we’re playing, none more so than what these guys [pointing at Catt] are doing in terms of our attacking shape and our ‘all court running game’, as I like to call it,” he said. “But that’s going to have to be at 100% on top every other facet of our game. You have to go over there with confidence, and I think we’re doing that more than ever with the group of players that we’ve got.”
England seem settled, but there is no doubt that, as we head into a punishing business end of the season, there will be casualties along the way. That, allied with the players missing in the domestic final, could leave England an understrength side going into the first test in NZ. The danger is that they lose that opening test heavily, and never recover. Rowntree, however, believes that the group of players at England’s disposal is confident in their chances of turning over New Zealand on home soil.
“You could say that we had a perceived understrength team that nearly won the Six Nations championship, given the number of caps we had, and new guys we capped,” he points out. “We’re confident now more than ever in the group of players we’ve got.”
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Mike Catt and Graham Rowntree were speaking at an event for QBE, the business insurance specialist, who are committed to supporting the development of rugby through the QBE Coaching Club. Visit www.QBErugby.com
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images