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In the world of rugby union, the old proverb about reaping what you sow holds true. The development of a strong player pathway is crucial for any nation looking to produce future stars and achieve success on the international stage. England, with its larger player base and abundant resources, cannot afford to neglect its grassroots and player development pathway. The statistics speak for themselves – only one men’s Six Nations grand slam since 2003 and a lack of World XV candidates compared to other rugby powerhouses like South Africa, France, New Zealand, and Ireland. However, there is hope on the horizon, as England’s U20 head coach, Mark Mapletoft, believes that the future looks promising.

Mapletoft, who has returned for a second stint with England U20s after a successful tenure at Harlequins, is convinced that there is a pool of emerging talent in England that can develop into World Cup winners in 2031. He believes that young English players are as good as any in the world now and sees the potential in this year’s U20 intake. According to Mapletoft, six to eight – and possibly even up to 10 – of these young players have the qualities to become future Test players, which is an unusually high number. He points to England’s recent age-group results, such as their dominant victories over Wales, Ireland, and France, as evidence of the talent coming through the ranks.

So, what has changed? Mapletoft, who played alongside many of England’s 2003 World Cup winners, witnessed the emergence of a “golden generation” of players like Owen Farrell, George Ford, and Elliot Daly during his previous stint with England’s age-group sides. However, somewhere along the way, the talent pipeline seemed to dry up. Mapletoft identifies the cracks that appeared around 2013 and 2014, despite England’s victory in the junior U20 World Cup in 2016. He believes that financial uncertainty at the club level and the impact of COVID-19 set England back in terms of player development.

Fortunately, recent efforts have been made to address these issues. The RFU has once again hired full-time staff to support players along the player pathway. Previously, coaches from Premiership sides were invited to double up, leading to concerns from rival clubs about player contact outside of competition time. Mapletoft also highlights the importance of reconnecting with the national senior coaching panel and reviving the England A team as a crucial testing ground between the Premiership and international rugby. The focus should not only be on the 2027 World Cup in Australia but also on the 2031 World Cup in the United States.

Mapletoft emphasizes that the alignment between the ages of 16 to 20 is pointless if it doesn’t continue between 20 to 24. The goal is not just to produce world-class U18 or U20 teams but to develop players who can contribute to a world-class England team. With a renewed focus on the player pathway and the commitment to nurturing young talent, England has the potential to once again compete with the best in the world.

In conclusion, England’s rugby future looks promising with the pathway to world-beaters. Despite recent challenges and a decline in player development, the efforts to address these issues and invest in the next generation of talent are encouraging. With the right support, coaching, and resources, England has the potential to produce a team of world-beaters who can compete for the 2031 World Cup. The emergence of young English players and their recent age-group successes are positive signs for the future of English rugby.

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