By Jon Newcombe
New England captain Callum Braley hopes to replicate the spirit of 2013 and lead his side to more RBS Under 20 Six Nations and IRB Junior World Championship glory.
England edged out Wales in both competitions last year to claim a memorable double, and they begin their defence of the Six Nations on Friday with a trip to France – the scene of their JWC triumph last June.
The fixture in Draguignan will be the first time the sides have met since England beat France 30-6 on the opening day of JWC 2013, and the defending champions will be quietly confident of repeating the feat, albeit, as Braley points out, with a new-look side.
“We may be labelled as a World Cup-winning team but, out of the current squad, there are only eight of us who remain from last summer,” Braley said.
“Obviously the aim is to try and win both competitions again this year and we’re treating Friday’s game against France as the first of a block of 10 leading up to (JWC 2014 in) New Zealand.
“But we’re not looking any further ahead than France; our mentality is to just take it one game at a time. France away is definitely one of the tougher games in the Six Nations and we’ll know where we’re at after Friday.”
Bristol scrum half Braley, a replacement when England beat Wales 23-15 in the JWC's first all-northern hemisphere final, forms an all-West Country half back partnership with Gloucester’s Billy Burns – brother of England international Freddie who played at JWC 2010 in Argentina - for the curtain-raiser with France.
Inspired by graduation
Coach Nick Walshe’s starting line-up includes more JWC 2013 winners in back row Ross Moriarty, loosehead prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and wing Henry Purdy.
“Looking back on last year I think we were successful for a couple of reasons: when things got tough we stuck together as a team and we kept to our game plan,” Braley said.
“That team spirit is starting to build this year as we get to know each other better. Things are coming together nicely.”
Moriarty, son of former Wales international Paul, believes the promotion of JWC winners Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson to the senior England ranks will help inspire this crop of Under 20 players.
“The position Jack and Anthony find themselves in shows that 20-year-olds can play international rugby for senior teams and demonstrates to all young players how close they are to making the step up,” said Moriarty.
“I think all the boys have high expectations of themselves and of the team itself so there’s a sense of pressure that way, but we aim to just go out and play to the highest standards possible and hopefully that will be good enough for us to get the right results.
“We’re can expect a hostile crowd and for France to come out firing after we beat them in last year’s Six Nations and Junior World Cup.”
Big shoes to fill
After twice suffering heartbreak at the hands of England last year, Wales will be looking to shake off their bridesmaid’s tag with a first-ever Under 20 Six Nations title under new coach Byron Hayward. Only five of the team that start Friday’s opener against Italy - now coached by Azzurri legend Alessandro Troncon - have experience at this level though.
Scotland enjoyed their best-ever championship in 2013 after finishing fourth under the captaincy of Jonny Gray and his replacement, London Scottish back row forward Tommy Spinks, admits he has ‘big shoes to fill’ as Scotland prepare to take on Ireland.
"When head coach Sean Lineen asked if I wanted to be captain, I told him it would be a massive honour and a privilege.
"The Under 20s had their most successful season last year but we had opportunities to do even better. We finished fourth but if we had beaten France in the last game we would have finished second. Jonny Gray did a brilliant job on and off the pitch and I have big shoes to fill."
Ireland will be lead out in Athlone by opposite number Dan Leavy and will be keen to avenge the 21-20 loss they suffered at Scotland's hands last year.
By Jon Newcombe