Conor O'Shea: England A initiative is not to ‘capture’ dual nationality players

Alfie Barbeary during a Gallagher Premiership match between Bath and Gloucester
Bath's Alfie Barbeary has been called up to the England A squad - Getty Images/Patrick Khachfe

Conor O’Shea is hopeful of organising up to four England A fixtures per season, but has stressed that the initiative is not designed to ‘capture’ players that qualify to represent other nations.

England A will face Portugal a week on Sunday at Welford Road for a first fixture for the second string since 2016. Alfie Barbeary and Josh Hodge were two headline names among the 27-man squad that was named on Thursday morning, which contained just five capped players in Jamie Blamire, Nick Isiekwe, Tom Pearson, Harry Randall, Ollie Hassell-Collins.

There will be further movement from Steve Borthwick’s senior set-up. O’Shea, the Rugby Football Union’s executive performance director, explained that “a number of players” would “drop down” next Tuesday.

For instance, the A squad currently features only two centres in Ollie Hartley and Rekeiti Ma’asi-White. These youngsters are likely to be supplemented by another midfielder – at least one of Oscar Beard or Max Ojomoh, perhaps – when Borthwick’s plans for the Calcutta Cup are clarified.

The overarching aim is to familiarise the transition between the club grind and international camps, where combinations must gel quickly. Because beyond age-grade, unless these players are lucky enough to be called up by the Barbarians, this is an extremely rare challenge. O’Shea insisted that the concept of ‘tying’ players did not come into consideration when he and Steve Borthwick, as well as George Skivington, the head coach, were discussing selection.

“The purpose of this is performance and international rugby is a different kettle of fish,” O’Shea said. “You want young kids to maintain a connection. Over the past eight years without England A, you’ve literally had a stopping point. That stopping point has been Under-20. This isn’t about capture.

“If it was, we’d have done it years ago. This is the right time to reintroduce it because the season structure allows it and, with 10 [Premiership] teams, we’re not overloading players. Hopefully, we have some exciting fixtures to come.”

Zach Mercer and Dan Kelly were notable omissions, particularly given the latter will theoretically qualify to represent Ireland next summer, which marks three years since his England debut.

Dan Kelly in action for Leicester
Dan Kelly will qualify to represent Ireland again next summer - Getty Images/David Rogers

Portugal will be a vastly different side from the one that wowed spectators at the World Cup, with their top players set to be in action for French clubs that weekend. O’Shea remained hopeful of a “really good test” for England A in the East Midlands and explained his eagerness to roll out the programme over coming years.

“It’ll be three, maybe four [games a year],” he said. “We’re very conscious of overloading and we want a programme with an element of consistency. It’ll be done in international windows. If you look at season structure, all unions will have the challenge between end of season and tour.

“If [a club] is knocked out before the play-offs, you’re going to have six or seven weeks. You also have the Under-20 World Championship as well. A match in that period would act as a good bridge as well as the fallow week of a Six Nations.”

This is an England A squad to be excited about

Pace, power and props; these would appear to be three major assets of the England A squad as the second-string returns to face Portugal a week on Sunday for its first fixture since 2016.

Usually, upon scanning an extended training party, one must temper excitement. Coaches are reassured by familiarity and experience. Most of the time, the confirmation of a final match-day 23 is considerably less thrilling than the announcement of a wider group, when the whiff of possibility is still hanging in the air.

Even if Steve Borthwick will switch in some members of his senior squad next week, and notwithstanding how Os Lobos will be far weaker than – and even unrecognisable from – the side that enchanted us at the World Cup, it will be difficult to pick an uninspiring England A line-up.

How about Josh Hodge at full-back with two of Cadan Murley, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Ollie Sleightholme on the wings? You have speed, skill and the invaluable ability to roam. Sleightholme, tenacious and agile, feels like an especially good fit for the defensive system of Felix Jones.

The back row offers similarly explosive potential. Alfie Barbeary at the base of the scrum, flanked by Tom Pearson and Greg Fisilau? They would not lack combative ball-carrying. Guy Pepper and Jack Clement have been excellent this season, as well, despite the struggles of their respective clubs, Newcastle Falcons and Gloucester. Nobody could begrudge either of them a start at Welford Road.

“Not knowing quite a few of these guys [yet], it’s a talented bunch,” said Sam Vesty, who will be George Skivington’s attack coach for the game. “There’s a lot of good, dangerous runners; a lot of skilful players on the ball. I think we’ll be able to play quite a fast game and move the point of attack well, with lots of threats and some good power-carriers.”

Northampton Saints head coach Sam Vesty
Sam Vesty will be England A's attack coach for the game against Portugal - PA/Bradley Collyer

Vesty’s credentials have been in full view this season as Northampton Saints have marched to the top of the Premiership, contributing a strong contingent to Borthwick’s front-line Six Nations squad. How will he put his stamp on this scratch team when they assemble next Tuesday? With a stripped-back approach.

As much as Borthwick and co are looking to see which players thrive in an unfamiliar environment, it would not be a big surprise if Vesty, the former Leicester Tiger, enhances his reputation on his old homeground. The 42-year-old is surely destined for higher honours in coaching.

“I’ll be keeping things as simple as possible, getting them swimming in the same direction and then giving them loads of energy,” Vesty explained on Thursday afternoon. “You can’t reinvent the wheel in a week or over-do the tactical side of it. The last thing these players want is to be overthinking.”

Rusiate Tuima, who progressed through the England age-grade set-up as a No 8, has been turned into a rare commodity at Exeter Chiefs this season; a burly tighthead lock. There are not too many of them bopping about in this country. That said, Arthur Clark and Ben Bamber, two more England A second-rowers, are hefty specimens as well. Nick Isiekwe adds spring at the line-out. Again, it will be tough to assemble a combination that looks underwhelming on paper.

The introduction of tight-five age-grade camps showed that nobody at the RFU is in denial about the need to solidify England’s scrummaging pipeline. Nathan Catt, a recently-appointed pathway coach, will be coming in to help out Skivington in this area during the build-up to next weekend.

Tarek Haffar and Fin Baxter are the loosehead props primed to feature against Portugal, pending any other inclusions. Both appear to be on a formidable trajectory. Haffar is a fierce runner, Baxter mightily durable.

Fin Baxter playing for Harlequins against Saracens at the Stoop
Fin Baxter brings power to England A's front row options - Getty Images/Patrick Khachfe

On the tighthead side, two more piano-pushers.

James Harper, still just 23, is renowned for ridiculous gym scores at Sale Sharks. He has not quite asserted himself as a Premiership regular, which makes this a big opportunity. Josh Iosefa-Scott, the New Zealand-born 27-year-old who traded the Highlanders for Exeter Chiefs in 2021, seems far more convincing as a set-piece operator this season. He tips the scales at 22st, which is rather handy.

Borthwick and Tom Harrison have been monitoring Iosefa-Scott for a while, holding conversations with Rob Baxter. Conor O’Shea believes that rawer tightheads, such as the versatile Asher Opoku-Fordjour, may need complementing.

“If you look at tightheads coming up, you’ve got Afo [Fasogbon] from Gloucester, who’s injured. Billy Sela is doing exceptionally well, and there’s [Jimmy] Halliwell from Bristol. Asher is on the loosehead for England U20, but is also a tighthead.

“You’re also talking about the here and now. Josh is someone who has really impressed Steve [Borthwick] and Tom [Harrison] and they want to have a look at him.”

Caolan Englefield is a tidy scrum-half to complement Harry Randall, while many have tipped Sam Harris, the 20-year-old Bath prospect, for big things. At 26, having joined Leicester Tigers from stricken Worcester Warriors via Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Japan, Jamie Shillcock has earned this chance thanks to his versatility and poise.

Centre is another position that needs additional depth. Ollie Hartley and Rekeiti Ma’asi-White, both of them ex-Wasps, could be joined by Max Ojomoh, Oscar Beard or even Fraser Dingwall depending on how Borthwick sets up his midfield for the Scotland game. Again, an intriguing partnership should be the upshot.

Whatever the result at Murrayfield the previous evening, Sunday’s return of England A will set tongues wagging. With more fixtures promised over the years to come, a strengthened pathway should galvanise the senior side.

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