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The Analysis | The future of England's long-term success in the World Cup appears much brighter with a clear path ahead.
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The Analysis | The future of England’s long-term success in the World Cup appears much brighter with a clear path ahead.


The well-known saying about receiving the consequences of your actions holds true for rugby union, especially compared to other sports. If you neglect the foundation of the sport or the growth of future players, it will eventually have repercussions. This is evident even in a country like England, with a larger pool of players and resources, as they cannot avoid the negative effects of a disjointed player development system.

Since 2003, England has only achieved one men’s Six Nations grand slam, which is a disappointing statistic for Twickenham. It is a clear objective for those responsible for creating the next generation of talented English players. Despite reaching two World Cup finals in the past twenty years, England has produced significantly fewer players who are considered for a World XV team compared to countries like South Africa, France, New Zealand, and Ireland.

It is intriguing to hear a specialist in this specific area maintain that there are promising English players on the rise. While they may not be prepared for the upcoming Six Nations tournament or even the 2027 World Cup, Mark Mapletoft, head coach for England’s U20 team, firmly believes that the future looks bright. He states, “I truly believe that young English players are just as talented as players from any other country.” When asked if he would bet on England winning the 2031 World Cup, he confidently responds, “I definitely would, as long as we make the right moves.”

After spending 10 years at Harlequins, Mapletoft has returned to England U20s for a second time. He believes that this year’s U20 group has a significant number of players, potentially six to eight, with the potential to become future Test players – an unusually high amount. While he does not want to single out specific individuals at this early stage, he does highlight England’s recent success in age-group matches. Despite criticism of England’s current state, Mapletoft questions how the U18s were able to defeat Wales with 60 points, Ireland with 50 points, and France with a score of 41-0 last year.

What has been the difference? The experienced Mapletoft played alongside many of the players from England’s victorious 2003 World Cup team. During his previous time with England’s youth teams from 2008-2010, he led an U20 grand slam and saw two junior World Cup final appearances. With the emergence of the “golden generation” including players like Owen Farrell, George Ford, and Elliot Daly, England had a promising young talent pool that could compete with any team. Mapletoft reflects, “We didn’t think we were ready for the 2015 World Cup, even though it was in our home country. Our goal was always 2019.” In the end, England fell just short, but Mapletoft still believes they had a strong squad.

At some point, the effusive flow of talent diminished. Mapletoft noticed concerning issues with the pipeline in 2013 and 2014, even though England won the junior U20 World Cup again in 2016. He believes that the academy players from those years had the potential to become successful players, but there was a definite decline after that. This drop off was not limited to just Quins, as it was likely happening at other clubs as well. Mapletoft suggests that the financial aspect of the game at club level played a role in this decline. There was uncertainty and confusion surrounding the actions of Premiership teams, and then Covid-19 added to the setback.

In recent times, the RFU has begun hiring full-time staff to assist players on their journey to success. This is a change from the previous practice of inviting coaches from Premiership teams to take on additional responsibilities, which caused tension among other clubs. According to Mapletoft, some clubs were not comfortable with coaches from teams like London Irish communicating with their players outside of official competitions.

Mark Mapletoft

The national senior coaching panel experienced a growing disconnect. Mapletoft, who earned one England cap in 1997 against Argentina, reports that they have already held one meeting with Steve Borthwick regarding the pathway, which is an improvement from before. Bringing back the England A team to serve as a valuable testing ground between the Premiership and international rugby would also be a significant advantage.

“As we prioritize the 2027 World Cup in Australia, we must not overlook the importance of also preparing for the 2031 tournament in the United States,” explains the former Gloucester, Quins, and London Irish fly-half. “Ensuring alignment between the ages of 16 to 20 is meaningless if we do not also consider the period between 20 to 24. The A team is a significant step towards achieving this goal. Our responsibility is not solely to develop exceptional U18 or U20 teams, but rather to nurture top-tier players who can excel on the world stage as part of the England team.”

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Is it possible that, despite ongoing off-field controversies and increasing competition from other countries, English rugby may reach success sooner than expected? Despite recent losses for Saracens and Leicester, six teams from the Premiership are expected to advance to the round of 16 in the Champions Cup. Stuart Lancaster, former coach for England and current head of Racing 92, believes there is a resurgence of young English players in the sport. He praises the improvement of the Premiership, citing the strong performances by Northampton and Harlequins. The folding of three teams last season has unintentionally led to increased strength in the remaining teams.

Steve Borthwick

Keep an eye on this area. Borthwick will reveal the reshuffled 2024 squad for the Six Nations this week, and there are signs of progress. Mapletoft emphasizes that there are U20 players with the potential to succeed at the highest level. Could England win the 2031 World Cup? Don’t forget where you heard it predicted first.

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Source: theguardian.com