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How England's next rugby union stars are being developed

From BBC - November 15, 2017

"I am really fortunate that in the early part of my career I did not have a lot of input from coaches."

This is not exactly what you would expect to hear from the man helping to mould the next generation of England rugby union internationals.

But it quickly dawns on you that head coach John Fletcher, speaking on day two of an England Under-18 development camp, is not everything you would expect of a man charged with stacking the conveyor belt of talent with the newest breed.

"This is the most exciting part of my job - spending time with young, enthusiastic, motivated, skilful players and trying to support them to get better," Fletcher told BBC Sport.

It is hardly a surprise that Fletcher's number two, Peter Walton, is the son of a farmer, with the duo having helped cultivate and harvest the nation's finest prospects for almost a decade - from the midfield pairing of George Ford and Owen Farrell to prodigious forward Maro Itoje and barnstorming brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola.

"It is our role to identify those players who have the best chance of going through. We have a lot of experience in it. Peter and I know what it looks like at different stages of development," said Fletcher.

"We have got people in this part of the performance pathway who are incredibly driven to create an environment where kids can be the best versions of themselves."

'Playground behaviour'

This programme is where the gifted are encouraged, the ambitious unleashed and the competitive challenged.

Fletcher, who worked as director of rugby at Newcastle Falcons before taking on the job with the Rugby Football Union in 2008, wants players under his tutelage to play and act as if he was not there.

This is a man who has to be part-coach, part-child psychologist. He talks about creating a loving, playful, accepting and empathetic environment to ultimately foster the production of adaptable players.

What anchors the team's ethos is the acronym 'CARDS' - creativity, awareness, resilience, decision-making and self-awareness.

It is an ideology which former England boss Stuart Lancaster helped define while he was in charge of elite player development, and his national team successor Eddie Jones is well aware of the approach.

"The best environment I have ever seen is the playground," said Fletcher. "There is never a 60-0 because teams would have been swapped around before that, rules would be changed. There is a lot of inclusion.

"Playground behaviour is what we, as adults, need to bring a bit more into practice.

"When I was young, I just played. I'd say 95% of the time it was just with mates with no adults around at all. And even the other 5% with adults around organising stuff, I'd say they were rocking up saying 'sort yourselves out'.

"Now I am a coach and I have adopted that. I do think it is the best approach - I coach kids and you have to be comfortable with kids actually sorting things out themselves and you want it often to be chaotic."

"Chaos" is what Fletcher, Walton and fellow England Under-18 coach Russell Earnshaw aim for in their sessions and they will throw up the unpredictable to get it. In return they expect the unlikely, brazen and daring.

"We do not have a real strong structure or framework to how we play, we play towards principles," said Fletcher.

"Our principles of defence are around assessing threats, cutting down options, getting the ball back. That allows players a lot of freedom to go out and explore different ways of bringing that to life.

"The biggest difference in our environment is that we are really comfortable with exploration and we understand that a lot of good learning comes from stuff not going well."

Highs and lows

A session with the squad makes for captivating viewing and there are a host of coaches from academies, schools and clubs to observe.

For the first 10 minutes there is not a rugby ball in play. Instead, players get their hands on footballs and even odd-shaped and odd-sized balls - because you never know just how the next pass or kick will land in your hands.

Forwards and backs are referred to as "low numbers" and "high numbers", because forwards and backs are terms "adults use" and which limit players positionally.

Here, "low numbers" are encouraged to develop a kicking game - another reason to use the more forgiving footballs - as they try to shape a player capable of succeeding in the game of the future, rather than cloning the next Itoje.

Tackle bags are nowhere to be seen, while headbands of every colour of the rainbow are used instead of bibs, because... well, why not? As Earnshaw, the Heineken Cup-winning former Bath player, put it: "You feel like you are on a stag do."

Earnshaw, who previously worked as England Sevens coach and taught economics for two years before joining Fletcher and Walton, is a big believer in fostering an encouraging environment.

He was not a fan of the shirt and tie as a teacher, and feels for his 12-year-old son who goes to school dressed as "a little businessman", but his approach is only partly about dress sense.

The battle for the number 35 shirt

"You do not want them to always think it is rugby," he continued. "It can be monotonous if you do the same thing all the time.

"A headband is cool and you would probably want one over a bib, but it does also mean you are searching for more information when looking for a team-mate.

"The way the game of the future is going, for them to play the international game they have to make decisions under pressure - it will be chaotic.

"Already it is getting harder and harder to tell who is a low and high number, and that is a good measure of where the game is going."

Those players who showcased those all-round skills, as Northampton Saints junior academy hooker Samson Ma'asi did, earned themselves the number 35 shirt.

Why? Because he dared to play like a hooker, a number eight, a fly-half and a full-back.

"The jersey is two + eight + 10 + 15," explained Earnshaw. "It is given to whoever is doing best on both sides of the ball, running, kicking, passing, making decisions, organising, deception and anticipation.

Target man

Education, education, education

'A World Cup-winning influence'

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