England U20s' strength in depth will be on full show against Fiji as Six Nations champions look to build on opening win

England will hoping to lay down a marker when a squad full of exciting players take on Fiji in Cape Town
©RFU Collection via JMP UK

Last Saturday, England secured a vital opening win in their first fixture of the World Rugby U20s Championship in South Africa. 

This Thursday, they take on the flying Fijians as they hope to go two wins on the bounce before facing the hosts South Africa in their final group stage game.

Despite making a poor start in their opener against Los Pumitas and finding themselves 14-0 down, Mark Mapletoft’s troops turned things around with a hat-trick from debutant Jack Bracken helping to seal a 40-21 victory.

Captain Finn Carnduff said of England’s second-half performance: “We went back to what we pride ourselves on, which is our effort and work rate. We started to do that the back end of the first half and then entering the second, we really got the ball rolling and built momentum from there.”

Next up, the Six Nations champions take on a bruised Fijian side, who suffered a difficult 57-7 loss to the dominant tournament hosts South Africa. 

England faced Fiji in the pool stages last year, where they secured a 53-7 victory, but Carnduff insists they are not taking Thursday’s opponents for granted.

“We 100 per cent respect Fiji for the team that they are,” he said. “A Fijian team at any level can throw curveballs, and we’re expecting that. We know they’re going to bring that classic Fijian flair, but our preparation and mindset haven’t changed. If we see any team as less of a challenge, it can cause arrogance and complacency which we definitely don’t want to creep in.”

Mapletoft added: “Before they faced South Africa, Fiji had some issues getting into the country last week, which must have been difficult, and then playing in front of a hostile South African crowd with very little preparation time can’t have helped.

“I felt they were definitely in that game for 20 minutes, but then that South African power just took over, but they’re a team that can do anything from anywhere, and we certainly won't be underestimating them. We’re expecting a much more prepared and better 80-minute performance from them on Thursday.”

Mapletoft has opted to make 12 changes to the starting XV which took to the field against Argentina, with Cardnuff and scrum-half Ollie Allan retaining their positions while Oli Spencer moves from outside to inside centre.

“We’ve rotated a lot, we did the same thing last year,” Mapletoft explained. “There’s an extremely physical nature to this competition. There are a lot of games in quick succession so to expect the same team to roll out every round is unrealistic.

“We have to trust the squad and our processes, both on and off the pitch, that the lads and the leadership group have driven.”

Five players are set to make their first starts, and Arthur Green and Angus Hall are in line for their maiden Under-20 caps. 

However, experience can be called upon if needed as all eight players on the bench featured in the victory against Argentina. They also have a total of 58 Under-20’s caps between them.

“It’s exciting that we’ve been able to use such a wide variety of players. I think it shows the strength and depth of the squad at this age,” Carnduff added. 

“Yes, it’s a lot of boys' first opportunities, but they’re all very capable. I think we saw that with Jack Bracken on Saturday and his performance so I’m expecting similar performances from the boys this week. We’re filled with confidence, they’ve got the backing of the senior lads in the squad, and we’re excited to see them play.”

In addition, 13 players in Thursday’s squad gained valuable game time in either National One or National Two in 2023/24 such as Toby Cousins for Leicester Lions, Josh Bellamy for Worthing and James Halliwell for Dings Crusaders.

To further highlight the importance of the rugby pyramid to this next generation of English talent, the likes of Ben Coen [Exeter], Ollie Allan [Lougborough] and the excellent Billy Sela [Bath] also represented their respective universities in BUCS Super Rugby this term.

And Mapletoft was full of praise for the top level of the student game.

“Certainly, in the last 12 months, it’s been improving and provides a different pathway opportunity for players to develop. It’s a great addition to the traditional pathways for players and has a history of bringing players who have played at that level to the very top, and it’s great to see so many lads playing.”

England U20s team to face Fiji: Ioan Jones; Toby Cousins, Ben Waghorn, Oli Spencer, Angus Hall; Ben Coen, Ollie Allan; Cam Miell, James Isaacs, James Halliwell; Harvey Cuckson, Olamide Sodeke; Finn Carnduff (capt), Kane James, Arthur Green.

Replacements: Craig Wright, Asher Opoku-Fordjour, Afolabi Fasogbon, Junior Kpoku, Henry Pollock, Lucas Friday, Josh Bellamy, Alex Wills.