On the weekend that the England senior team regained some respectability and clinched the 2016 Six Nations title a week early, it was the Under-20s side who were coming to terms with a crushing defeat by Wales. At the ‘under construction’ Ashton Gate in Bristol, Wales Under 20 remained on course for a grand slam by running out 42-16 winners in an entertaining game watched by a sizeable crowd that included your reporter. So who were the stars who shone and may be the names of the future fighting for senior grand slams in the years to come?
- Harrison Keddie
The Welsh Number 8 played a huge part in his side’s first ever win in England, with a display of strong carrying that he rounded off with a try from a clos-range scrum. The only negative for the Newport Gwent Dragons player was the yellow card he received for an ugly tackle on the England fly-half Matt Protheroe, although his try followed almost immediately after his return to the pitch that effectively sealed the game. With Taulupe Faletau the uncontested Number 8 for Wales there may be an opportunity for Keddie to position himself as second-choice in that position quite quickly and at six foot two inches and 109kg he certainly has the frame for international rugby.
- Matt Protheroe
As the scoreline suggests it was not a happy night for England but fly half Matt Protheroe didn’t let himself down despite playing behind a struggling pack. He is somewhat of a controversial figure as he was born in Swansea yet plays for England despite no family ties to his adopted nation. Despite being only 19 years old he has already signed a senior professional contract with Gloucester and is highly regarded by the West Country club. He is a sniping number 10 always looking to make the break, with good feet and pace to match. As with George Ford he is a small figure and therefore invites questions about his defence but he has shown so far that he can cope against larger men and the faith shown in him by Gloucester and the England age groups surely demonstrate that he is destined to make it at the highest level.
- Dan Jones
Opposite Protheroe was Welsh fly-half Dan Jones of the Scarlets, who had a very solid game, particularly with the boot. He converted all six of Wales’ tries and was able to get the backline going given the solid platform provided by the forwards. Dan Biggar may be regarded as a star player following the World Cup but it is easy to forget that he was for years before seen as merely a solid club player and was virtually the only Welsh back not taken on the 2013 Lions tour. If Jones follows this trajectory then he may find himself as the holder of the number 10 shirt performing a similar role to Biggar.
- George Nott
Finally another player who impressed was England blindside flanker George Nott of the Sale Sharks, another Welsh-born player. Playing at Six rather than his natural Lock position, he put in a good carrying shift which stood out more in an England pack who were under pressure for most of the match. Nott made his debut for Sale over a year ago in one of the most intimidating atmospheres that is Munster’s Thomond Park, and this experience has clearly helped him develop a strong attitude when up against it.
It was disappointing to see England on the end of a heavy defeat in a competition that they have historically dominated, but this experience will be invaluable when some of the players inevitably go on to represent the full team. As for Wales they should complete the Grand Slam against Italy next week and many players will have good claims to be promoted to the full side and reinvigorate a side that needs a Plan-B beyond crash ball; these players certainly offered that in Bristol.