"Put Our Own Strengths Onto the Pitch" - Mark Mapletoft: England Head Coach Previews U20 World Championship opener against Argentina - Ruck

“Put Our Own Strengths Onto the Pitch” – Mark Mapletoft: England Head Coach Previews U20 World Championship opener against Argentina

The England squad get their U20 World Championship underway this weekend, as Mark Mapletoft’s side take on Argentina for their tournament opener. England enter the competition as the U20 Six Nations champions, and are eyeing up their first World Championship title since 2016.

England finished last year’s competition in fourth place, after their defeat in the Bronze Final to tournament hosts South Africa. Mapletoft and his players are now back in the land of the Springboks, and Leicester Tigers break-through lock Finn Carnduff will once again lead the side out as the captain. Mapletoft has named seven uncapped players in his touring squad, and five of which have made the match day 23 for the first round.

One player set to make their England U20s debut against Los Pumas is wing Jack Bracken, who as his surname suggests, is the son of 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Kyran Bracken, and brother of exciting Saracens prospect Charlie. Jack has been bestowed the number 14 jersey for the fixture, after a break-out campaign with the England U18s and an impressive showing in the non-Test double header with Georgia. Speaking on the expectations of the latest Bracken break-out, Mapletoft said;

“Jack’s had a great 12 months in the program. Played for the under 18s last year in the Six Nations festival as an under 17. Toured South Africa with the U18s last summer. And look, with the opportunities he’s had this year including the under 19 games. He was arguably the best back we had on show.

“I think he deserved his chance. He bounced down to Georgia in and around his A Levels along with Angus Hall, both from Sarries. And just as Finn (Carnduff) alluded to, he’s just settled into the group really well, I think the players immediately respect other good players and you can see what they’re about.

“Yes, you’re right, Charlie has played for the U20s. He’s played for us for the last two years. Ironically, Kyran, and I… Kyran was my under-18s captain, way back in the day. Yeah, I think that’d be pushing for about 1990, although my memory fades a little. So we go back a long way.

“But, those two lads have definitely earned their opportunity. This has nothing to do with friendships in any of that they’re both good players. Jack’s grasped every opportunity, he comes off the bench in Georgia, catches a restart, goes around somebody on his own try-line for a 60m break the guy can make things happen.

“There’s a lot more to the game than that. It’d be a great learning experience for him. And hopefully stand him in good stead for the rest of his career, but he’s definitely earned the opportunity.”

Jack Bracken is joined by uncapped scrum half Ollie Allan in the starting XV to face Argentina, with prop Cameron Miell, and halfbacks Lucas Friday and Ben Coen looking to make their first England U20 appearence off the bench. Friday is another exciting prospect that has been garnering attention in the national age grade pathway, having overcome a season-long injury for the recent school season which prevented him from establishing a stronghold upon the England U18 squad.

The young Harlequins scrum half has since stepped up, after the injury to Northampton nine Archie McParland, in the World Championship warm-up match against Georgia. Mapletoft expressed how the England set-up had long been keeping tracks on Friday, and how he is excited to see what the scrum half brings to the forefront out in South Africa.

“Yes. I’ve known Lucas now… I first came across him probably four years ago. Outstanding, I’ve known his dad for a long period of time, and he’s always shown a huge amount of talent. He’s progressed in age through the U16s and 17s, he’s not even turned 18 yet, so it’s quite a good one (tournament) to start off on.

“He toured South Africa last year with the U18s. He then spent most of the season injured but bounced back in for the under 18 Six Nations festival. And again, he played for Quinn’s against the Armed Forces back in May. So he is a player we’ve tracked and look, opportunities opened up.”

Mapletoft is constantly impressed by the maturity of his side, as the England U20s are able to adapt and alter their approach even after losing key players to injuries. Friday is one such player that has prospered from the recent circumstances, as Archie McParland dropped out. The head coach recalled another instance which saw the Saints scrum half pull out of a fixture just minutes ahead of kick off, and the impressive reaction from his group of players.

“Archie (McParland) unfortunately, got injured in Georgia and wasn’t able to make the plane (to South Africa). So when things like that happen, players from sort of further down the the selection, they’re presented with opportunities and I think what this squad, this group of players have proven over the Six Nations period, is it doesn’t matter who comes in, they’re able to deal with that, and the setbacks that potentially people might look at as a real negative outcome.

“And I can think back to again, Archie, pulling out in the warm up in Italy (2024 U20 Six Nations), Ben Douglas suddenly thrust into the limelight, and has to play eighty minutes because we don’t have a second choice or another another scrum half out in Benetton. So I think that was evidence.”

The England U20s have been able to utilise a leading South African club’s training facilities, as they press on with preparations ahead of tomorrow’s opening fixture. The young roses have been based in Cape Town’s DHL Stadium, the home of United Rugby Championship side the Stormers.

Whilst the England players haven’t had to acclimatise a great deal, thanks to leaving the UK in the middle of a scorching Summer heatwave, they have been taking in their new surroundings at the home of the 2022 URC champions.

“The Stormers, we’ve been fortunate enough to train at their facility. John Dobson their head coach is a long standing friend of mine. Threre is always logistical issues when we’ve been out here in terms of training venues, and they’ve been very kind enough to step in both last year and this year to allow us to train there.

“So yeah, we’ve been hugely thankful for that. It just helps with the prep, in terms of quality of pitch and an environment. I think John would downplay it, but it’s plenty good enough for what we need. The weather is probably more akin to what it was, when we were just leaving the UK, which was nice and warm and sunny, no cloud in the sky. No doubt at all the clouds will gather and it’ll rain on Saturday.”

Turning his attention to Saturday’s opponents, it has been quite difficult for the England U20s coaching staff to know what to expect from the incoming junior Pumas. There is not an abundance of available footage for the players and coaches to study, but the South Americans are expected to bring a fierce passion to the pitch, with a fiery intensity of attacking tempo. Speaking on how his side have been focussing on themselves whilst preparing for the Argentines, Mapletoft added;

“I think one thing that’s emerged through the game over the last, for the last four to five year cycle is, teams spend a lot more time focusing on themselves than getting derailed by looking at the opposition, I don’t have a percentage to say, whether it’s 80, 20 or 90, 10. But it’s very much about what you do within the confines of what we have, which is limited footage.

“We’ve got (Argentina’s) Rugby Championship games, from probably six weeks, or eight weeks ago, they played in a huge variety of conditions from a monsoon to baking sunshine on the Sunshine Coast, the irony of which.

“So, you know, for us to get bogged down too much on who the individual players are and what they do, we have to remember, as a collective, we are players ranging from 17 to 20, without a huge array of experience.

“We’re not senior pros, 25, 26 (years old), who’ve been doing this for six or seven years. So you can easily get derailed focusing too much on the opposition. We’re very respectful of what they’re about, and where their strengths lie.

“Of course, we’ll identify where opportunities exist. But I think for the most part, it’s very much about us trying to implement our own game plan and put our own strengths onto the pitch.”