Why England 'A' can provide those on the fringes with a further chance to stake their claim

Max Ojomoh - formerly of the University of Bath - was name-checked by Steve Borthwick during England's Six Nations squad announcement
©Bryn Vaile for Matchtight

As the anticipation and buzz builds for the upcoming Six Nations championships, rugby enthusiasts have eagerly been analysing the most recent announcement of Steve Borthwick’s England squad.

However, amidst the excitement, there are always players who, for various reasons, might miss out on the prestigious tournament. The silver lining for these individuals lies in the prospect of featuring for England ‘A’ against Portugal next month.

Injuries, form fluctuations, and intense competition can sometimes relegate deserving players to the fringes of the national squad.

Last week, Borthwick highlighted the importance of knowing his players and the ‘A’ team will definitely help in terms of future selection and adding more depth to different positions.

"Know the players as well as you possibly can,” Borthwick said. “Spend time with them, chatting to them, speaking with their coaches. That’s incredible."

The England ‘A’ fixture against Portugal provides an excellent opportunity for these players to showcase their talent, make a statement, and stake their claim for future international honours.

Max Ojomoh (Bath - Centre)

As one of the rising stars in English rugby, Max Ojomoh’s performances for high-flying Bath have not gone unnoticed.

Ojomoh is great at distributing the ball and carrying it into tackles to beat the gain line. His talent shines through his powerful running frame, eye for sourcing space and bringing players into the game.

However, with stiff competition at 13 in particular, the 23–year–old has found himself just outside the selected group for the Six Nations.

Borthwick said: “Centre is a position where you look around, you’re thinking which centres are going to emerge, which centres are going to be playing the way Oscar Beard [Harlequins] is playing.

“Max Ojomoh and Lennox Anyanwu were close to the squad - I met with all those players and what I need is those players playing regularly.”

In the case of Ojomoh, he has started seven games at 13 for Bath this season but with Ollie Lawrence ahead of him in the pecking order, it is always going to be a challenge to nail down a regular spot on a weekly basis.

In the ‘A’ game, Ojomoh could showcase his ability to break defensive lines, link up play effectively, and make crucial tackles - qualities that can potentially elevate England’s midfield dynamics.

Being a part of England ‘A’ would serve as a stepping stone for him to demonstrate his readiness to compete at the highest level and follow in his father’s footsteps, Steve Ojomoh, who played 12 times for England.

Ojomoh - who is capable of playing at 12 - knows his journey towards a senior England cap might involve a detour through the ‘A’ team, but if he seizes this possible opportunity with both hands, he could become a key figure in England’s midfield for years to come.

Tom de Glanville (Bath - Full Back)

Another promising talent who plies his trade at The Rec is Tom de Glanville. He is a young and dynamic player who has missed out on the Six Nations but could shine for England ‘A’.

A versatile back, de Glanville has demonstrated his proficiency at both full-back and on the wing, showcasing a blend of pace, agility, and rugby intelligence that has caught the eye.

His attacking flair and defensive acumen allow de Glanville to bring a balanced skill set to the field. His capacity to break through opposition defences and make crucial tackles makes him a well-rounded asset for the ‘A’ team.

The England ‘A’ match is not just a consolation but could be a strategic move to provide the young player with an opportunity to gain valuable experience.

With Freddie Steward and George Furbank seemingly ahead of him, perhaps featuring for the ‘A’ side will allow de Glanville to prove his readiness for higher honours, and potentially stake a claim for future senior selections.

Asher Opoku-Fordjour (Sale Sharks - Prop)

At just 19 years old, Asher Opoku-Fordjour is seriously thriving and working his way up the Sale Sharks ranks as a notable player.

Opoku-Fordjour moved to Sale due to Wasps’ financial disintegration and has been flourishing in the North-West due to the way the Sharks push their younger players.

Opoku-Fordjour’s exceptional core strength has left Alex Sanderson in awe as well as showcasing his scrummaging intelligence and outstanding tenacity on the field.

The spotlight is on Opoku-Fordjour due to his rapid rise in the Sharks’ ranks. A timely opportunity arose with an injury to James Harper, placing him in matchday squads against formidable opponents.

His encounters have included a face-off with Joe Marler at The Stoop, stabilising a struggling Sale scrum against Andrew Porter and Cian Healy away at Leinster, and impressive performances against Newcastle and Stade Francais.

While rookie props often face challenges early in their careers, Opoku-Fordjour has proven resilient. 

Despite his name being discussed for an immediate call-up, England have opted not to throw him in just yet but they are well aware of the prop’s enticing skillset with the likes of Fin Baxter (Harlequins) another one to watch out for.

Opoku-Fordjour demonstrated his brilliance for the under-20s last summer, harbouring a fervent ambition to don the rose at senior level.

Alfie Barbeary (Bath - Back Row)

One of the most exciting young prospects in English rugby, Alfie Barbeary’s form this season and explosive style of play have garnered attention. However, the competition for spots in the England squad are intense, especially in the back row.

But Borthwick rates the 23-year-old highly: “He’s not in the England squad yet but he will be and he will be a regular England player one day.

“He’s had some injury setbacks but he’s proved his character with the way he’s playing again now.”

Barbeary, despite his undeniable talent, was not selected in England’s plans for the Six Nations.

Last week, Borthwick admitted this in mainly due to recent disciplinary action against him after a high tackle on Max Spring and a forearm challenge on Nolann Le Garrec saw Barbeary sent off against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup.

The Bath number eight has been banned for three weeks, reduced to two if he attends tackle school.

As reported by The Times though, Barbeary is set to play for England ‘A’ against Portugal and it becomes a crucial opportunity for him to once again showcase his unique skill set.

In the ‘A’ game, Barbeary could lead the charge with his skilful ball-carrying, physicality at the breakdown, and precise set-piece play.

His performance against Portugal could be the catalyst for earning a call-up to the senior squad for the Six Nations if Borthwick wants to shuffle his pack for their final two games against Ireland and France.

The challenge for Barbeary is not just to demonstrate his individual brilliance but to seamlessly integrate into the team structure.

The ‘A’ fixture provides the perfect setting for him to develop synergy with potential future England teammates and show that he can contribute effectively at international level.

Watch out for Barbeary as he aims to make a resounding statement in the England ‘A’ clash, turning potential into tangible success on the international stage as the next number eight in line to be in Borthwick’s plans.

Zach Mercer (Gloucester - Back-Row)

We finish with someone who right now, isn’t in Borthwick’s immediate plans. Gloucester number eight Zach Mercer returned to England this season and has recently expressed his disappointment at being excluded from the Six Nations squad. 

After two excellent years in France - playing for Montpellier and making a strong recovery from his ankle injury - he had hoped to be in contention to add to his two England caps.

But having been left out by Borthwick, he told the BBC last week he was ‘done with England’ and that he will be concentrating on his role at Gloucester.

Borthwick said he hadn’t seen Mercer’s quotes but did say he had spoken to the 26-year-old about areas of his game where he can bring a point of difference.

With that in mind, Mercer’s brilliant off-loading skills and superb footwork are some of his standout attributes but also during his time at Montpellier, he emerged as a leader within the squad.

His significant contributions led to him being appointed vice-captain, and the home crowd honoured him with a standing ovation during his final appearance for the club.

Before his stint in Montpellier, Mercer spent five years showcasing his talents at Bath, where he accumulated an impressive 95 points in 76 Premiership appearances.

Mercer, who last played for England in November 2018, has a distinctive ball-playing style and the way he thrived in the intense, physical environment of the Top 14 shows he has what it takes to adapt to different situations.

Perhaps the fact Mercer’s club, Gloucester, have been struggling domestically this season (they are ninth in the Premiership and have lost their last nine league games) hasn’t helped his cause so it will be interesting to see whether the 26-year-old can fight his way back into Borthwick’s thinking.

Who would you like to see feature for England ‘A’ against Portugal next month?