Jack van Poortvliet, Emeka Ilione, Lucas Brooke and Phil Brantingham will all face Scotland U20 on Friday in Cardiff
After a fine comeback victory over France to start their Championship, England face Scotland in the second round of the postponed Under-20 Six Nations on Friday at Cardiff Arms Park.
Emeka Ilione, Lucas Brooke, Phil Brantingham and captain Jack van Poortvliet are all set to start the game, which will be streamed on YouTube. Here are their stories so far.
The medical student picked out by Maro Itoje
By his own admission, Emeka Ilione has only dipped his toe into the world of professional rugby. Already, though, he appears to have earned admirers in high places.
Eleven months ago, in the height of lockdown, a tweet from Maro Itoje delivered a special endorsement of Ilione’s promise. The Saracens, England and British and Irish Lions lock had selected a Nigerian British squad featuring stars such as Anthony Watson.
Itoje picked himself as captain at blindside flanker. The name above his, due to be in the number five shirt, was that of Ilione.
It’s been a tough and rigorous process but I have come down to my final Nigerian British XV of current players. A good blend of experience and youth. Congratulations to all those selected. 🇳🇬🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/VBZ2QHzl3h
— Maro Itoje (@maroitoje) July 8, 2020
While the Leicester Tigers youngster, a former England Under-18 skipper, normally occupies the back row – he is at blindside flanker today against Scotland – a wide grin suggests he would be willing to play out of position.
Ilione rang his parents, Remi and Nnenna, upon seeing Itoje’s line-up in full. They were delighted.
“I have had a few conversations with Maro that were set up by the England pathway,” he says, before a short pause. “But I didn’t think he actually knew who I was or how I played!”
“One of my friends from home stuck it in a group chat. I assumed they’d created it themselves because everyone had a lot of free time in lockdown.
“I went onto Maro’s Twitter to check and I just said: ‘Oh my days!’ There were so many unreal players there, quality players that have achieved so much. Then there’s me, at the start of my career, alongside them. It was really quite cool.”
Ilione, right, was a replacement against France Under-20 on Saturday
Rangy and athletic, Ilione enjoys hanging in the wide channels. He believes a grounding in basketball has honed an ability to free his arms for offloads, but is eager to contribute in every facet.
“I love watching Tom Curry,” he added. “I think he’s one of the best back-rowers in the world, because he’s got it all – he’s probably the most well-rounded back-rower in the world.
“He’s busy in attack. In defence he’s a great tackler and he’s unreal over the ball. He’s also a lineout option. When I look at my game, I want to head in that direction.
“The breakdown has always been something I have enjoyed. I love going for jackals and trying to get the ball back. As a back-row forward, that is your time to shine, I think.”
An epic comeback 🔥
Ahead of England U20 v Scotland U20 tomorrow, catch up on the highlights from our round 1️⃣ victory over France 👇
⏰ KO 14:00
📺 Live on https://t.co/2D5OJ1KMWT, England Rugby Facebook and @sixnationsrugby YouTube pic.twitter.com/yLRQ4vStvo
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) June 24, 2021
COVID-19 has been especially disruptive for those forging their way in the game, even before you account for injuries. Ilione was due to spend a spell on loan at Nottingham this season, but the secondment from Tigers to the Championship was cut short by a syndesmosis problem.
“Smashing conditioning”, he says, has been the contingency plan. A lay-off has also helped focus his energy on the medical degree he has undertaken at Nottingham University since leaving Rugby School.
Public health is an early passion, and Ilione is keen to make “the biggest impact possible and help as many people as I can”. After an introduction from England U18 coach Mark Mapletoft, he has also been picking the brain of Jamie Roberts.
With a schedule comprising five hours of online lectures per week, plus another day at Nottingham, tips on time management from the Wales and Lions centre – another rugby medic – over Zoom calls have been greatly received.
You sense, though, that Ilione’s enthusiasm and verve will serve him well in any field.
“I’ve been able to train at Leicester from 7.30am until about 1pm or whatever,” he says. “Then I’ve been able to come back and crack on with university work. That’s been the pattern all year. I enjoy the course and find it really interesting, especially when you’re learning things you can apply to rugby.
“The week after I did my ankle and while I was still in a boot, I was doing an ankle dissection. That was absolutely great, to see exactly what you’ve done and why it hurts. It was unbelievable!”
The son of an All Blacks great
Lucas Brooke will need to get used to fielding a pretty obvious question about his kicking prowess. Given he is a burgeoning back-rower, that might seem odd. His old man has a lot to answer for.
Fortunately, 19-year-old Lucas is polite enough to laugh at a reference to the trio of drop-goals slotted by father Zinzan over a 58-cap New Zealand career, including the iconic 50-metre strike against England in the quarter-final of Rugby World Cup 1995.
“I practice every now and then, just in case!” says Brooke, the scorer of England U20’s first try in their stirring comeback to beat France last weekend.
“My dad always says to practice the basics and keep up the skills that you might need. You never know, do you?”
While aware of what Zinzan and uncle Robin, another All Black, accomplished, Lucas has not felt stifled – at least not since the former stopped encouraging him into a different sport.
Brooke scores from close range against France
“He’s been very chilled,” Brooke says of his father’s guidance. “He actually wanted me to play football at Ascot United at a really early age. I had to tell him that football wasn’t my game every Saturday!
“But he’s been open to any path I’ve taken, although he’s happy that I’m on this one with rugby”
“At an early age [my name] didn’t affect my game and wasn’t brought up that much,” adds Brooke, who was just six when he started out at Windsor RFC and is currently affiliated to London Irish.
“As I got a bit older, I think people realised who I was and people mentioned it a bit more. That made me realise how big a figure he was, but also that I had to ignore that and treat him as my dad and my role-model rather than focus on the hype of his achievements with the All Blacks.”
Lucas (centre) photographed with his parents and five siblings in 2015
Credit: Paul Grover
Born in England to an English mother, he is proud of his New Zealand heritage. Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino were early idols even if Tom Curry has taken over as an influence in recent years. Brooke also wears a reminder of Ngāti Hine, the tribe that Zinzan’s family hails from, on his right shoulder.
“Maybe two years ago I spoke to my parents and felt as though, as I was coming through English rugby, I felt a bit of a disconnect to my Maori culture,” he says.
“I thought a tattoo would keep me in touch with that side. It’s also in memory of my grandmother, Hine, who passed away around the same time. It holds a lot of meaning and I really like it.”
Brooke will start at openside flanker for a second consecutive Six Nations game and says that England stayed “calm and cool” despite falling behind 19-3 thanks to a hat-trick from France wing Nelson Épée. That would seem to be a neat evaluation of his character, too.
Zinzan Brooke in action against the Springboks in 1996
Credit: Action Images
“I pride myself on hard work, on getting around the pitch and on my fitness,” Brooke says. “I like to get through a lot of actions – as many jobs on the field as possible.
“I also take pride in my defence and like making the big shots but I definitely think I can work on my ball-carrying and my footwork because that will make me into more of an all-round player.”
The code-hopping prop
He has embarked on a degree in economics and management, but Phil Brantingham’s rugby education in the North East could not have offered him a better grounding to develop as a ball-playing loosehead prop.
Until the age of 17, he shared his time between union and league. Initially, in his early teens, Brantingham would jump codes rapidly with 13- and 15-a-side matches over the same weekend.
Later, union took over the winter as league shifted to summer. However, increasing crossover during the spring required him to make a tough decision and Newcastle Falcons retained his services.
Brantingham came off the bench against France Under-20
Although league did provide rougher afternoons – Brantingham remembers a game for Cramlington Rockets at Kingston Park that was abandoned after five minutes following a “crazy” 26-man brawl – it remains close to his heart.
“It took on my skills and fitness in leaps and bounds,” he explains. “The number of touches you get on the ball goes through the roof.
“Newcastle Falcons and [rugby league club] Newcastle Thunder were also really good at managing my work-load because I went through a period where I was doing loads of both sports and probably stretching myself beyond what I could do.
“How they managed my games helped me get the best out of league and union.”
Academy coaches James Ponton and Aiden McNulty, before he moved across the Irish Sea to become Ulster’s elite player development officer, were significant figures at Falcons. The set-up complemented Brantingham’s penchant for passing and carrying.
“They put a huge amount into playing rugby and not getting bogged down in structure,” he says. “So much of what they do is about playing to space.
Brantingham (right) celebrates after Nahum Merigan's try at Cardiff Arms Park
“Even as a forward, they would get you to kick the ball and let you explore the game rather than suffocate you by keeping you doing basic things. As a player, that gives you licence without putting on pressure.
“When it came to the Under-18 matches, I think we struck a good balance. It was the best environment I’ve been in as far as being able to express myself.”
With coronavirus restricting matches for many age-grade players, young front-rowers have needed to be diligent when honing set-piece responsibilities. Brantingham is under no illusions that challenges lie ahead.
“It’s just a completely different level,” he says of the step up to the Falcons senior squad. “At Under-18, some props aren’t going to be the biggest scrummagers. Then, in pre-season, you are getting hammered by huge tighthead props! You think: ‘Jesus, this is a step up!’
“Knowing lineout and scrum detail has been the biggest lesson but the best way to learn is actually scrummaging. You are going to get your head put between your legs sometimes, but you’re not going to learn otherwise.
“You either think ‘I don’t like this, I don’t want to do it anymore’ or you look at how you improve from a tough experience.”
The Leicester cub pushing Ben Youngs
The sparky performances of Jack van Poortvliet have represented a major reason to be cheerful for Leicester Tigers supporters during their club’s recent resurgence under Steve Borthwick.
On the final day of the regular Premiership season at the Ricoh Arena, a second-half snipe and offload to set up Julian Julián Montoya’s try encapsulated why so much excitement and optimism surrounds the scrum-half’s progress.
By his own admission, Van Poortvliet has taken “a lot of confidence” from the past few months. He also highlights his attacking game as an area that has improved thanks to first-team game-time – as well as the advice of two senior colleagues.
“I think it come back to scanning,” he explains. “I sat down with Wiggy [Richard Wigglesworth] and Lenny [Ben Youngs] at the start of the year and we said that was something I could improve – scanning before breakdowns.
“That has helped me no end, just looking up and scanning around breakdowns and out towards the edges [of the defensive line]. Then, whenever I’ve seen an opportunity, I’ve had a mind-set of just backing myself and going for it.”
At half-time of that entertaining, 38-31 win over Wasps earlier this month, it was noticeable that Van Poortvliet made a beeline for Youngs. Tigers had opted to keep the England centurion among the replacements with their 20-year-old tyro starting.
“It had been a very scrappy first half, so I wanted to know where he thought I could get control and have an influence on the game,” Van Poortvliet adds.
“He and Wiggy have both been so good for me this year. I can’t speak highly enough of how they’ve been with me. We’ve had conversations like that in every training session and in every review of every game – often the questions are ‘what are you seeing?’ and ‘what are you feeling about the game?’
“[Ben] will come to me with those questions if he has started and I am on the bench. I think it’s worked so well because it is a two-way thing that goes back and forth.”
#SixNationsU20 | @[email protected]
I mostly focus on the chase, but two directional box-kicks into touch by @PoortvlietJack were pure class. The kicks resulted in combined 51 net metres. In total, ENG net territory gain from box-kicking was 158 metres.
— J.Wallusch 🌹 (@J52Wallusch) June 22, 2021
Such sentiment reflects the meritocracy that Borthwick has engendered at Welford Road, with youngsters pushing more established names across the squad. Indeed, more than a few Leicester fans were frustrated that Van Poortvliet was not involved for the European Challenge Cup final loss to Montpellier.
“I’m always disappointed when I’m not playing, whether it’s a final or not,” he admits, before hinting at his ambition.
“I’m always challenging Steve, asking what I can do to get ahead of them – competition makes you better and I have two great nines to push myself against.”
Now, there is a desire to put a full-stop on his breakthrough senior campaign with Six Nations silverware. Van Poortvliet has been England’s captain for their first two games and his tactical kicking – an area that will have been aided by the tutelage of Wigglesworth and Youngs – was particularly sharp in the win over France.
He is taking a leadership role seriously as he aims to implement lessons from older Tigers teammates while “bringing together the ideas from each of the clubs so we can gel as quickly as we can and, ultimately, try to win this tournament”.
Van Poortvliet on the run against France Under-20, with Brooke in support
Not that the learning will stop. Sale Sharks dynamo Raffi Quirke, with whom Van Poortvliet shares “a great relationship”, is also in the England U20 squad. Two years out from Rugby World Cup 2023, the pair will have certainly made themselves known to Eddie Jones.
“I’m always trying to steal bits from people’s game that I think they are better at than me,” Van Poortvliet finishes. “And there’s plenty I can steal from Raffi!”