England U18 coach John Fletcher brought George Ford and Owen Farrell through the age-groups, and now he believes they can thrive alongside one another...
Regardless of five Test defeats in a row and whatever has appeared in this week’s newspapers, English rugby is in rude health. An exacting talent identification system and a cohesive, connected representative ladder mean that will not change anytime soon. Consecutive Junior World Championship victories have not come by accident.
In that respect, John Fletcher is one of Twickenham’s most valuable assets. For six years he has overseen England U18 sides that play with pace, structure and eye-catching innovation. His list of alumni is already long and illustrious and each graduate raves about the contribution of ‘Fletch’ to their burgeoning careers.
But when the chirpy, cheerful Geordie left the director of rugby position at Newcastle Falcons back in 2008, the first assignment of his current post was picking a squad for a tricky July tour to Argentina.
Alongside more established players in their late teens such as Joe Marler and Freddie Burns, two northern lads had impressed over a successful spring with the U16 set-up.
George Ford was 15 and Owen Farrell was 16. One was a diminutive fly half with exemplary distribution skills and enough vision to jump three years out of his age group. The other was a strapping centre whose prickly tenacity and measured maturity made him capable of playing two years up.
Fletcher did not need a second thought and his inkling was immediately vindicated. He observed the strikingly assertive manner of two tyros as their close friendship translated into an exceptional on-field partnership.
“They were dominating International U16 games,” he remembers. “They were head and shoulders above anything else on the pitch.
“What stood out with them was not just their skills but their attitude. They were far beyond their years from an emotional and cognitive point of view. Mentally, they were both so strong.
“They spent a lot of time together socially, so they were confident in one another and understood each other – what they liked, what they didn’t like, what motivated them and what annoyed them. That’s a massive part of playing together.”
Following an assured showing together against Uruguay on that trip, Farrell and Ford were mainstays of the next season for England U18 and cut a swathe through opponents while commanding a backline including Manu Tuilagi, Christian Wade and current sevens star Marcus Watson.
Fletcher is an affable character who is enthusiastic without ever straying over the border into hyperbole. Even so, he does not bother trying single out one moment that sticks in his memory. By his reckoning, Ford and Farrell would create danger “pretty much every time they touched the ball.”
A decade and a half guiding glittering talent will leave you with fairly accurate instincts in terms of gauging potential. Fletcher worked with Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood before joining the RFU, and admits that he often weighs up the respective qualities of past and present charges – including Henry Slade and prodigious Gloucester 17-year-old Mathew Protheroe.
Interestingly, given what Stuart Lancaster has decided to do this weekend, Ford and Farrell’s complementary combination stands out among Fletcher’s graduates. Both fine players in their own right, they always added up to more than the considerable sum of their parts.
“As a pair, their collective awareness was outstanding,” Fletcher continues. “That was anticipation, decision-making and everything that is vital for a team to perform. People wrap those things up in the concept of ‘experience’.
“I’ve reviewed games with George and Faz – they see and called things at the same time. They’re not telepathic, but they’re getting that way. It’s about reading body language and knowing what people think, and it’s massively important because it creates time on the ball and creates opportunities.
“That can take time to develop, but those two just have it. It’s an absolute joy to coach. In fact, you’re not really coaching when those two are charging around – you’re just a facilitator.”
Rob Hunter’s England U20 travelled to Italy for the 2011 Junior World Championship saturated with ability, from brawny, athletic forwards such as skipper Matt Kvesic and Joe Launchbury to an electric back division featuring Elliot Daly and Marland Yarde.
Eventually they were beaten 33-22 in the final by the Baby Blacks, who numbered Charles Piutau, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett among an awesome crop. Throughout the tournament, Ford and Farrell directed proceedings. Fletcher watched on, and is now “incredibly excited” to see what a first senior start against Samoa will bring.
Despite Farrell’s rather off-colour outing during the 31-28 loss to South Africa on Saturday, he is clearly confident of the pair posing problems in attack as well.
“Owen will get in at first receiver a lot of times during the game, which allows George to go somewhere else. Something that people didn’t realise about Jonny Wilkinson was that his timing as a runner was as good as I’ve ever coached. A lot of times he’d get into scoring positions and nobody would be good enough to pass him the ball.
“What you will see when these two are together is both of them threatening. They both recognise things as runners – lazy defenders, players not moving very well, guys shooting out of the system.
“There was an inevitability about this happening, really. I know for a fact that Stuart has thought about the possibility of this combination for some time. It’s a good decision.”