"Get Involved in that Six Nations Squad" - In-Form Guy Pepper Backed By Falcons Coach Micky Ward - Ruck

“Get Involved in that Six Nations Squad” – In-Form Guy Pepper Backed By Falcons Coach Micky Ward

With the 2024 Six Nations now less than one month away, the countdown has commenced to see who England Head Coach Steve Borthwick will call-up into his squad. Borthwick is set to name his squad on January 17th, and there is a promising contingent of Newcastle Falcons players all gunning for a spot.

Amongst the leading North Easterly names in the England conversation is back-row Guy Pepper, who has been in tremendous form all season. Despite Newcastle’s unwanted run of results in the 2023/24 campaign, Pepper has been running out strong performances, in each of his 13 appearances for the Falcons.

Pepper is certainly one of the leading names around Newcastle’s England hopefuls, and Falcons Forwards Coach Micky Ward certainly backs the 20-year-old to stake a claim for the 2024 Six Nations. Borthwick is a man down in the back-row following the international retirement of Courtney Lawes after the Rugby World Cup, and Ward sees Pepper as a definite candidate for the squad, following his strong performance against Harlequins last weekend.

“I mean, it was nice to see Guy from an attacking point of view because, a week earlier, I think he broke the record from a tackles point of view in the premiership. He’s a very good defensive back-row, so it was nice on the weekend to see him getting it, see his attack. He got a couple of good carries on the front foot, and he did a good job from an attacking point of view. Probably harsh on one of his penalties, to give away defensively, the other one was probably a penalty.

“But he’s competitive, he’s young, he’s competitive, he’s strong. For me, he’s got a very, very good chance of being in the (England) team because he’s performing well, week in week out he’s not ‘on and off’, he’s he’s consistently performing well. Obviously, you know, with any young lads, you’ve just got to make sure that you’re managing them effectively, so we’ve got to manage them through the week from a training point of view and obviously managing in games.

“We want him to play as much as we possibly can, because he’s a top young player. I hope, I’d love to see him get involved in that Six Nations squad, if he doesn’t get involved in the next year, for me he’d be involved in it, in the next year or two because he’s a top level player. You can see whenever you when they chat to him in meetings, or we’ll see him on the training pitch or wherever you see him. You can tell straight away that he is a top level player.”

Another top Falcons talent who is pushing for a return to the England camp is Adam Radwan. The exhilarating wing has not played for his country since the 2021 Autumn Internationals, yet the door is back open following Jonny May’s international retirement. Borthwick has not yet called upon Radwan as a series of injuries has hindered his recent form. However, the Premiership’s fastest player is back hitting top gear, and Ward believes he has been putting his hand up for a return to the England camp.

“I’d love to see ‘Radders’ (Adam Radwan) involved, ‘Radders’ is electric whenever he gets the ball, he always does something with it. And that’s the thing with Radders, you can give him the ball, you know that even up here (Newcastle), he gets the ball, and the crowd gets electric as soon as he gets the ball, because he does stuff.

Adam Radwan of England on the break during the Autumn Nations Match between England and Tonga at Twickenham Stoop on 6 November 2021. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“That’s the thing, he’s worked hard. he’s had ups and downs over the last couple of years in and around the England stuff, and he’s been in, he’s been out, he’s been back, he’s been forward and it has been tough for him at times. Well he’s continually grafted all of the time, even the other weekend, I think it was down at Saracens, he got a bump on his face.

“He’s a tough nut as much as he got a big whack in the face, he’s got a big black eye, but it doesn’t faze him, he just gets through it and gets back on with it. Same on the weekend (against Harlequins), I know, he gives that yellow card away, but he’s just competitive he wants to do well, and every now and again people get things slightly wrong.

Adam Radwan of Newcastle Falcons during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Newcastle Falcons at the Recreation Ground on 31 December 2022. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“But he’s electric, so I’d love to see him get involved just for the hard work that he’s done. And the fact that he’s never been fazed in the sense that when he’s been in, and he’s then come back out of the (England) camp, it hasn’t fazed him, he’s just got back on and continued to graft hard. So I think it would be nice for him to get a get a shot in there. Just to keep showing people what he can do at the top level.”

Despite the understandable desire for Pepper and Radwan to make the England squad, and represent Newcastle in the Six Nations, all would not be lost if he falls just short of the mark. England are bringing back their ‘A’ side (formerly the England Saxons), to play an exhibition match against Portugal on February 24th. Ward recognises how important this match could be, if his promising Falcons players like Jamie Blamire and Callum Chick, are instead picked for the run out against ‘Os Lobos’.

Jamie Blamire of Newcastle Falcons during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Newcastle Falcons at the Recreation Ground on 31 December 2022. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“I think we’ve got a number of players who could potentially make that, if they don’t quite make the England squad. We’ve got a number of players who are going to be pushing to that ‘A’ team, whether it be ‘Blamey’ (Jamie Blamire) who you know, will probably be pushing towards that Six Nations team, because I think he’s had a great season so far.

“So he was really unlucky obviously not to get involved in the World Cup, but I think he’s came back and he’s jumped into it two-footed, and I think he started the premiership this year outstandingly well. You’ve got ‘Chicky’ (Callum Chick) who’s obviously played for England before but again you know, a guy that has been playing well, ‘Chicky’ is consistent week on week, he’s out there for us he’s given us great options in everything that we’re doing both in attack and defense. I think he’s got to be, he’s definitely got to be putting his hand up.

Callum Chick of England during the Match between England and Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium on 19 June 2022. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“Then even if you’re looking at the younger players, obviously we mentioned Guy (Pepper), you’ve got young Phil Brantigham who’s playing regularly, who could potentially push into that (England) ‘A’ team. Then even them in Bath that you mentioned, like your Ben Redshaw’s and people like that. I know they’re involved in the England U20s squad, but they are still top end players, who are potentially pushing into that ‘A’ Team. So I think I’m hoping that we would have a number of players if not in the main squad, definitely in that (England) ‘A’ squad.”

As Ward highlighted, the Falcons had recently seen four of their top young talents run out for the England U20s in an exhibition friendly. The U20s took on Bath United last Saturday, who compete in the Premiership Rugby A League, and were defeated 42-33 by the Somerset side.

Within the England U20s squad, full back Ben Radshaw and scrum half Ben Douglas started, with centre Oliver Spencer and hooker Jacob Oliver making appearances off the bench. Ward was delighted to see this quartet of Falcons talents wearing the rose, and is excited to see what they have added to their skillsets following the 2024 U20s Six Nations.

“It’s great for them to get out and experience a different environment. Chat to different players who are there from the different clubs, and also just playing against good levels. You know, they’re playing again at the U20s championship and I played in that, and it’s a great experience for them. The lads, a few of them have had premierships premiership experience so far this year. A couple of them haven’t, but even both Bens (Radshaw and Douglas) have been involved in the first team, whether it be in Europe or be in the Premiership.

“So it’s great. It’s a great experience for them, for their age and it’s good for us. Obviously having four guys in that U20s squad, it’s nice to be able to say we’ve got four guys in there, and they were involved on the weekend, and I think they’ve got another game this weekend because they went to a camp again today. So they’ll hopefully be involved in some form or fashion with that this weekend, but it’s good, it’s nice having good young lads coming through who are getting experience at the U20s level.”

Newcastle’s sole contribution to the score-board last weekend, came from the boot of Brett Connon in the 24-3 defeat to Harlequins. This match marked Connon’s 100th Newcastle appearence, and the fly half is continuously improving in Ward’s eyes. The Falcons coach believes that this ongoing development is partly due to the fierce competition for the Falcons 10 jersey, with young gun Louie Johnson and former London Irish playmaker Rory Jennings both also vying for the spot.

“It was nice last week, him (Brett Connon) being back involved, because he’s hasn’t been involved probably this year as much as he would like, just with different guys coming in, and obviously young Louie Johnson doing a good job. Then we’ve got Rory (Jennings), Rory’s came in. You know, so there’s different guys there, Josh Thomas as well.

So we’ve got different people putting bits of pressure on him. The good thing is even over the last couple of weeks when he hasn’t potentially been involved, he’s still been as professional as he is when he started, and it was nice last week for his 100th game. We saw how professional he was in meetings and on the pitch and all that type of stuff. So it’s nice when you’ve got that bit of experience to be able to come back into the team, and it was great for him to have his 100th game as well.”

“Whenever you’ve got competition in an area it obviously raises people’s game, doesn’t it? Because if you’re not, if it’s easy for you, and you’re playing regardless, then sometimes not everyone but someone standards could potentially drop. Whereas from a fly off point of view Brett’s got to be on every week because he’s got young Louis chomping on his heels. He’s got Rory he’s got Josh and the other lads who are pushing him along.”

Looking ahead to the weekend, Ward recognises the calibre of the opposition his Falcons will face in their return to the EPCR Challenge Cup. Benetton make the trip over from Italy, after a stunning run of form sees them sit at second in the United Rugby Championship. Ward identified the skills of this Friday’s opponents, who are looking to win their fourth consecutive match.

“They have got a decent side, and they are doing a good job at the moment, second-top in the URC. They are well placed as well in the pool, from a European point of view. They’ve got some good players across across the park, really looking at some of the names they’ve got in there. They are playing a decent brand of rugby, their defence is good. They are a solid outfit, so it’d be a tough challenge.”

After a defeat to the Ospreys and a win against Perpignan, Benetton currently sit at third in Pool 2 of the Challenge Cup. Newcastle continue their search for their first win of the 2023/24 season, after defeats to Montpellier and the Emirates Lions in the opening two rounds of pool stage matches. Despite the recent run of form, Ward explained how preparations for the upcoming European break have gone far more smoothly than in December, as the Falcons gear up to take on Benetton, and then Perpignan the following Sunday.

Newcastle Falcons Scrum Coach Micky Ward speaks with Sebastian de Chaves prior to the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on 3 December 2023. Photo: Patrick Khachfe/PPAUK

“It’s a bit of a different one. Obviously, the last time we had short turnarounds, then we had the South Africa game (Emirates Lions) and we were straight back into the Premiership on a short turnaround. So I think we are Friday to Sunday next week, and then we’ve got Northampton the week after. So it’s not as tight from a transition point of view. Also, after that Northampton game, there’s a few weeks off. Possibly before that last one (away to the Lions in South Africa), we were looking at that Bristol game (In the Premiership).”

“We’re trying to get a bit of consistency with some of our selections. So we’ve got three weeks, and then there’s a bit of a break anyway. So we’re probably not going to go changing, the big wholesale changes this weekend, and just have a bit of consistency moving forward over the next couple of weeks.”